Home > Uncategorized > The Guy at the End of the Virtual Bar

The Guy at the End of the Virtual Bar

-first posted at RTDNA.org on August 18, 2009

As a TV news director, I sort of feel like I have a pretty cool job.  It’s the sort of job that you figure your kids must go to school and tell their friends about, and everyone thinks I’m the coolest dad with the coolest job is school–at least I thought until the daughter of the owner of the landmark pizza place in town moved into my daughter’s class—then I was number two on the coolness chart.  But I digress.  This blog is not about pizza and not even about being cool.  It’s about the question I get asked most about my job.  The question isn’t about all the famous people I’ve met.  It isn’t about those times I was in mortal danger while out covering a story as a young photographer.  It’s not even about all the gatekeeping power I wield.  It’s this: “How many e-mails do you get a day?”

Yep.  That’s what people want to know about my every-day-is-different, middle-of-the-action job.  And you know what?  That’s a pretty good question, actually.  The short answer is about 400 or so (to my work address—personal e-mail and Facebook would be more).  But the more complete answer tells us a lot about how newsrooms operate now and what’s changed over my 30 years in the business.

But before we get back to my number, let’s look at the average person.  As you might guess, figuring out how many e-mails circle the world any given day is pretty tough.  No one keeps track of that.  But those who have the time to do this sort of mind exercise guess the number is somewhere between 50 and 65 billion.  Dividing that by the estimated number of internet users in the world gives you an average per person per day e-mail count of 72.  So that would tell you I’m running almost six times the e-mail volume of the average person.  But you can’t stop there.  On-line experts say about 85% of all e-mail is spam.  So 61 of those 72 e-mails are spam.  So suddenly, the average person is down to 11 e-mails a day.

Now, I know that you news people reading this right now are all saying, “I wish I got ONLY 11 e-mails a day!”  The number seems remarkably low.  But when you think about what a news director’s or reporter’s or anchor’s e-mail represents to the public, you start to see why we get so many.  E-mail has put us in the car with the guy with a beef about the government, put us sitting next to the woman on her way to a job that has some dirty little secrets, and put us standing in line at the checkout with the senior citizen worried about the cost of food.  Whereas very few of our viewers would, in the days before e-mail, actually see us in any of those places I mentioned above, we’re now suddenly within reach.  Sure, the telephone has been around longer than television.  But who among the audience had the guts to call up and talk to one of the TV people in town.  “Just the crazies” seemed often to be the answer to that question.  But the relative anonymity of e-mail allows just about anyone to summon enough courage to write with a story idea.

Sure, the crazies still call, and sometimes they write (you can usually tell by the spelling).  There’s also the new breed that seems to have been given new courage for rudeness by the ability to hide behind an electronic wall.  They’re the ones who write things like this (an excerpt from an actual e-mail): “The female newscaster around 8:30 am on Friday 6/29 needs to have a hairdresser and to smile once in a while…”  Can you imagine walking into your bank and saying that to your teller?  No, but the ability to e-mail it without saying it to someone’s face sure makes one a lot braver, doesn’t it?

I guess I’m willing to put up with the crazies and the crankies in order to get some real e-mails from people who are reaching out to us.  By my count (and this is a count, not a guess), I’ve had just shy of 3200 correspondences with viewers in the past twelve months.  Think back (if you’re old enough) to the days before e-mail.  Would you have fielded that many phone calls from viewers in a year?  Not a chance.  If I think back to my first year as a news director (1990), I was probably averaging 4 viewer calls a week—maybe 200 a year.  Multiplying that contact by 16 has to mean we’re closer to our viewers than before, doing the stories that affect them more.  I’m sure of it.

Ed Murrow famously said that just because our voices could reach halfway around the world it didn’t make us any wiser than when they could just reach the end of the bar.  But now the guy at the end of that bar—wherever that bar might be–can talk back and we can hear him.  And that makes us all wiser.

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