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E-mail: land of 1,000 sources.

When Frances Bula of the Vancouver Sun was researching a story about computer bulletin boards on college campuses last year, she didn't turn to her Rolodex. Instead, she switched on her computer and sent a written query via computer electronic mail, asking for anyone with information to contact her.

The replies, carried back to her computer through its phone line and modem, came quickly. "I got 29 answers from inside the province and four from the States," she says. "I would never have been able to gather this volume of information without spending two days on the phone." Many sources also sent reading lists, follow-up messages and telephone numbers for other sources.

After years of using electronic mail to share sources, record phone messages, make lunch dates or exchange quips through their computer systems, reporters such as Bula are discovering that "E-mail" sent outside the newsroom can provide instant access to a broad and deep pool of sources.

Adam Gaffin of the 40,000-circulation Middlesex News in Framingham, Massachusetts, used E-mail during the gulf war to find Israelis willing to talk about life during Iraq's Scud attacks. The reporter says he located the Israelis by reading discussions of the war on Internet, the world's largest computer network connecting millions of users worldwide. Gaffin then sent messages directly to the people he wanted to interview.

Later, for a magazine piece on Soviet computer networking, Gaffin conducted more detailed interviews via E-mail. "I'd send [sources] some questions, they'd reply, and I'd send back follow-ups," he says. "Given the state of phone connections between here and there at the time, there was no practical way for me to reach them by phone."

Electronic interviews may not work well in every situation. Ken Metzler, professor emeritus at the University of Oregon and author of the book, "Creative Interviewing," notes that E-mail conversations have the same drawbacks as any written exchange of questions and answers, and that he is hesitant to consider them "interviews" at all.

"The conversational dynamics simply aren't present," he says, noting that written interviews can "encourage the facades" that some sources use to shield themselves from probing questions or steer the conversation away from controversial topics.

Because of such limitations, reporter Dan Gillmor of the Detroit Free Press doesn't rely on E-mail exchanges. "It's important to call and verify that the person you're quoting is actually the one who wrote the messages," he warns. "And a voice can tell you a lot--inflections, hesitations, etc. E-mail is just one more form of communication. It should not replace phones or personal interviews."

Still, Gillmor says he finds E-mail devotees are often more willing to respond to requests for information. Sources say they appreciate the ability to compose their answers carefully and to respond on their own time. For this article, Metzler and I spoke by phone, then exchanged E-mail without having to worry about the three-hour time difference between Virginia and Oregon. Another busy source didn't respond for several days, then sent his message at 5:45 a.m., while he was awake with a sick child.

By using E-mail or specialized computer bulletin boards, which link dozens or hundreds of users at once, reporters can send messages to a single source or selected group. Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive E-mail directory, so it often takes some sleuthing to locate a person's address. Some devoted networkers have started printing their E-mail addresses on their letterhead and business cards.

Another way to gather sources is by joining discussion groups on computer bulletin boards. The heart and soul of electronic networks, they provide meeting places for people with similar interests in thousands of topics, including journalism. Occasionally reporters can get a lead, or the name of a source. More helpful is the ability to identify a group of sources who can then be reached quickly through E-mail.

Joining a network can be a challenge for many journalists, and some users aren't excited about the notion of having reporters listening to their electronic chatter. The easiest links are through commercial services such as CompuServe, America Online and Prodigy that offer standard E-mail features and discussion groups as well as access to databases. Even President Clinton can be reached by E-mail, although his staff responds on paper.

Far more useful than most commercial services but also more complex is Internet. Originally developed as a network for the Pentagon, Internet today is primarily a link among university campuses, military establishments and computer companies. But it's growing rapidly and now allows users to access, among other things, U.S. Supreme Court decisions, topic-specific bulletin boards and faculty members at universities around the world.

The Clinton administration has proposed broadening Internet's connections. When or if private sector companies such as newspapers and broadcast stations will be allowed affordable access is uncertain. For now, some journalists find they can sign-on through local universities, usually at little or no cost. Reporters Gaffin and Gillmor joined local networks that charge about $20 a month for limited connect time.

Some journalists are already looking beyond E-mail to the next generation of technology. "Video E-mail and video phones," notes Gillmor, "will be very helpful in our business some day."

Cochran, on leave from the Gannett News Service while teaching at American University in Washington, D.C., contacted sources for this story through E-mail.
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Title Annotation:use of electronic mail services by journalists
Author:Cochran, Wendell
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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