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Is being accessible to readers a good thing?

journalist accessibilitySocial media, online commenting systems and e-mail have made reporters more accessible to readers. Or have they? I won’t name names, but I know plenty of journalists and freelanec writers who carefully avoid the comments section of their online articles and rarely respond to @ mentions on Twitter.

In theory, being accessible to readers builds trust and transparency, while creating a pipeline of community-focused stories and credible sources. But does this actually work in practice?

One example of accessibility taken to new levels is The Register Citizen’s Newsroom Café, where locals can buy coffee or pastries, use public computers or free Wi-Fi and sit it on editorial meetings.

If you’re picturing a mob of outspoken readers or eccentrics with questionable agendas storming the newsroom, Matt DeRienzo, Connecticut group editor for the Journal Register Company, says that hasn’t been an issue. “We were surprised right from the beginning at how undisruptive the public was and how much they respected that it’s a working newsroom.” He does point to one incident where someone came to story meetings three or four days in a row and repeated the same thing about the same issue. An editor finally put the kibosh on the topic by saying, “I think we’ve covered that issue.”

The café opened in December 2010, and Digital First Media, which manages Journal Register Company (which itself recently filed for bankruptcy) is implementing open newsroom projects in other markets, including a pop-up newsroom with mobile newsroom vans launching in New Haven, Conn.

Of course, individual journalists have an even simpler strategy for making themselves accessible: the trusty Twitter profile.

Few users (including journalists) put their contact information front and center on Twitter, perhaps for fear of spam, off-topic press releases or angry readers. But in his classes for journalism students and professionals, Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia University’s first chief digital officer and a longtime social media guru at Columbia Journalism School, urges people to consider including an e-mail address in their profile.

“It makes it easier for sources to reach you and helps add an air of authenticity to your bio,” says Sreenivasan (@sree). “If you are a journalist or writer, you should be reachable, and an e-mail address is what many people are likely to want to reach you through, rather than a Twitter message.” (As someone who’s had many back and forths with sources in tweets or direct messages trying to move the conversation to a less character-restricted medium, I see his point.)

Sreenivasan practices what he preaches by posting his e-mail on Twitter and says he hasn’t gotten any crazy off-topic press releases or spam as a result. Fast Company contributor E.B. Boyd (@ebboyd) agrees, pointing out that her e-mail displays as ebboyd [at] fastcompany [dot] com so it’s harder for spam bots to read.

“You’ll get more stuff that’s not interesting to you by putting it out there,” admits Boyd. “But by not putting it out there, you won’t get the occasional assignment you want. When people want someone in tech to comment on a story, they can easily find me.”

According to Boyd, “the challenge for journalists is not trying to control whether their e-mail is on the web but developing effective ways to manage it.” After all, many journalists are now tasked not only with pitching, reporting, and writing stories, but are not expected respond to comments and e-mails, tweet, shoot video and perform other multimedia tasks.

Boyd’s strategy is maintaining two e-mail accounts: a Fast Company email that’s displayed publicly and a Yahoo e-mail that she checks more frequently and reserves for people she works with or knows. “If it’s a relationship that’s useful to continue, I’ll move them to Yahoo,” she adds.

New York Times reporter Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) takes accessibility a step further by including two phone numbers in addition to his email. Also in the “Twitter profile with e-mail” club is Christiane Amanpour (@camanpour). Stelter responded to an e-mail (saying he’s on deadline for a book) but Amanpour may have an overfull inbox: we haven’t heard back for days.

To those who scoff, or cringe, at the idea of putting themselves out there, Sreenivasan points out a fact that’s frightening or reassuring, depending on your viewpoint: your privacy doesn’t mean much anymore. “Many more journos’ e-mail addresses are public than they realize,” says Sreenivasan. “Most news orgs follow certain naming conventions and a lot of print newspapers list e-mails near bylines or at the end of stories.”

About Susan Johnston

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work appears in Bankrate.com, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, MediaBistro.com, Parade Magazine, and SELF, among other places. She is the author of The Urban Muse Guide to Online Writing Markets and blogs at The Urban Muse.

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