Re: Reader mail

I started answering e-mail from readers in the summer of 1994, and I’m still not done.

Close-up of OS X Mail’s interface.People keep sending more messages, true, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever reached Inbox Zero with respect to audience correspondence more than a handful of times, none of which followed the invention of blogging and social media.

The sad thing is that even as the tools I use to report and write keep improving, my options for staying on top of reader feedback haven’t advanced much since IMAP e-mail gave me the ability to flag a message for follow-up and see that annotation everywhere I check my mail.

So aside from those occasions when I have the luxury of writing back almost immediately, I still save too many of my replies for a frantic catch-up session, usually staged when I’m trying to finish a workday or during travel-induced idle time.

(Feature request for e-mail developers: Let me bookmark the point in my inbox at which I set aside reader e-mail and should resume answering it when I next have time.)

The “good job!” messages take the least time to reply–you write “thanks” and that’s about it–while I can’t resist taking the time to craft clever, snarky responses to the angrier feedback. That’s not healthy, and yet my colleagues at the Post and I used to debate the best way to reply to an unhinged reader’s spittle-flecked missive. I recall one more diplomatic reporter saying he’d simply write back “You may be right,” while a crankier co-worker half-jokingly suggested “Thanks for reading, as difficult as it must have been.”

E-mails asking “how do I do this?” or “how do I fix this?” take the longest amount of time to answer but can’t be neglected at all: They feed my USA Today Q&A column, and before that the Q&A I did for the Post.

The easiest way to get me to answer your message quickly is to tell me something I didn’t know. Think things like some breakdown in service or violation of the rules at a company or a government office, an error nobody’s seen before, or one weird trick to get a gadget or an app to do something that’s not in the manual. Otherwise, I can only fall back on the usual guidelines, which happen to overlap with the advice I’ve been giving to PR professionals for years: Use a descriptive subject header (as in, not “Help”) and make your case in the first sentence or two.

I’d like to tell you that from now on, I will do better, but I would be either lying or foolishly optimistic. This is a most honest statement: Please hold, and your e-mail will be answered in the order it was received.

Humbled

If you’re thinking of announcing your exit from a job you’ve been publicly associated with for years, I offer these tips: Clear out your inboxes, stretch out your typing fingers and charge your phone. I have been humbled and gratified to see the response to yesterday’s post–Twitter replies and messages; comments here and on Facebook; e-mails from readers, colleagues and competitors; texts from friends; blog posts responding to my own. (And yet the first call didn’t come until hours later. I’d say the phone really is obsolete, but it was a great conversation with an old friend.)

It hasn’t been all that long since journalism was a largely feedback-free profession: You wrote your story, and only an exceptionally interested or angry reader would put a letter in the mail or call your desk line. Then came e-mail, followed by Web chats, story comments, blog comments, Facebook updates and Twitter replies. Each of those developments has shortened and accelerated the feedback loop.

That’s not always good–the knucklehead comments on many political stories at the Post’s site testify to that–but the risk should be acceptable. Yesterday reminded me why. Thanks.