The editor of The Charlotte Observer is now saying the paper may decide against sending email to citizens whose addresses it obtains through a public-records request of local governments. But the paper is defending its request for the records, which comes as a lobbying group for the state’s cities and towns is proposing limits on public access to citizen email lists.
In a blog post Saturday, Observer editor Rick Thames said the paper had thought it might use the email lists to solicit citizen participation in its outreach efforts. Citizens whose names are on the lists are clearly engaged with the community, and the paper reasoned they might like to hear about its own public initiatives.
The Observer has requested citizen email lists from Charlotte, Davidson, Cornelius and other area governments. Mr. Thames said last week The Observer planned to use the email lists only for “journalistic purposes,” though he acknowledged that could include sending unsolicited emails inviting recipients to sign up for newsroom services. (See a copy of the Observer’s request to Davidson (PDF), CLICK HERE>)
Public officials, citizens and marketing experts raised red flags, worrying that the paper was planning to use the emails to send marketing messages.
“It’s about marketing, contrary to what Thames says,” Charlotte PR consultant Steve Hepburn wrote on his “Media Emerging” blog Friday. “Email lists of that size are an email marketers’ gold mine. If you think a newspaper that’s in a steep financial decline will keep the list off limits to its own marketing department, you’re crazy.”
Davidson officials worried the Observer’s request, which came from a non-newsroom employee, was not in the spirit of Freedom of Information laws. Knowing their emails could be used for business purposes might keep people from signing up for an important town communications tool, one Davidson commissioner said. (See Jan. 21, “Town puzzles over Observer’s request for citizen emails.”)
In his post, PR consultant Mr. Hepburn said any unsolicited email to the lists would not be “in the spirit of permission-based marketing.”
“Even if the Observer is within its legal rights to obtain and use the emails, that doesn’t mean it should. Permission-based marketing is about consumer choice. Citizens did not give the Observer permission to contact them,” he wrote. (See “Why the Charlotte Observer Collecting Private Citizen Email Addresses Is Wrong.”)
‘MAYBE WE WON’T’
Based on the outcry, and in response to comments on his own blog post Saturday, Mr. Thames now says the paper may not pursue that:
“While we think many people who are on the lists would find this appealing, we have many other ways of reaching them. And if we find that using these lists as a resource is not welcomed in general, we won’t do it.”
But Mr. Thames also defended the Observer’s request for the lists. He said the paper is trying to preserve access to public records such as emails at a time when local governments want to limit access.
The N.C. League of Municipalities last week approved a 2011 lobbying agenda that includes ‘limiting public access to lists of email addresses submitted by citizens to municipalities.” The Observer’s Steve Harrison reported Jan. 3 that the City of Charlotte was joining an effort to make it harder for spammers to access public email lists using the open-records law.
The legislature last year approved exemptions from the law to Wake and Yadkin counties. That exemption doesn’t shield email lists from public view entirely, but says governments in those places don’t have to provide an electronic copy of their lists. Citizens and journalists still would be able to inspect the lists, and copy names by hand.
Davidson resident Bob Maier said in a comment about our Friday article that he thinks the public-records law needs to be protected. “I’d prefer getting a single opt-out email from the Observer over allowing the government to restrict access to public records,” Mr. Maier wrote.
Download a copy of the Observer’s request to Davidson (PDF), CLICK HERE>
Jan. 22, 2011, Charlotte Observer, Rick Thames “Inside Story” blog, insidestory.blogspot.com, “Email lists used only for journalism.”
Jan. 3, 2011, Charlotte Observer (via NewsObserver.com), “City: Limit access to e-mail addresses.”
North Carolina League of Municipalities, 2011 legislative agenda approved.
Jan. 21, 2011, Media Emerging blog, “Why the Charlotte Observer Collecting Private Citizen E-mail Addresses Is Wrong.”
Jan. 21, 2011, DavidsonNews.net, “Town puzzles over Observer request for citizen emails.”
Jan. 24, 2011, WFAE.org, “N.C. Cities Aim to Curb Public Access to Government Email Lists.”
Jan. 21, 2011, WFAE-FM/WFAE.org, “Observer taps city, county email distribution lists.” – WFAE’s Julie Rose reports on the issue, including an interview with Observer editor Rick Thames.