- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

Buried in e-mail

The fax machine on the foreign desk used to run almost nonstop, spitting out press releases, invitations to conferences and promotions of one kind or another. These days, it sits mostly idle, while the inbox on my e-mail fills with urgent messages demanding attention.

E-mail has transformed the way we work, and mainly for the better. Staff and freelance correspondents around the world are easily able not only to deliver their stories directly into the computers where we will edit them, but also to make proposals and receive suggestions with a directness and speed that was never before possible.

New technologies are helping in other ways as well. Instant messaging allows us to stay in touch with a reporter across the globe while editing his story and ask, “What did you mean by this word in the third paragraph?”

Also recently, reporters have been able to contact us by instant messenger from an airplane while flying home from Europe or Asia.

Internet-based phone service, meanwhile, permits reporters to call us from remote continents for as little as 2 cents a minute. And an upgraded e-mail system allows us to see photo offers from abroad without even having to open the e-mail.

Unfortunately, all this technology has also made it far too easy for anyone seeking to promote a cause or an issue to demand a few moments of our time. There are days when I sit at my desk watching the e-mail messages fill up my basket more rapidly than I can answer and delete them.

The newspaper has contracted with an outside company that provides a state-of-the-art spam filter, which does an excellent job of identifying and sequestering the nuisance e-mails — the ones that urge us to refinance our homes or offer great prices on Viagra.

But that still leaves a great deal of unsolicited e-mail that we want to let through, such as press releases from international relief agencies and story proposals from freelancers with whom we have not worked before.

Effect on productivity

None of this is news to anyone who works in a modern office. In the last few weeks I heard of one study that said office workers now spend an average of three hours a day answering e-mail, and another that found it is beginning to have a deleterious effect on American productivity.

But because of the nature of our work, it occurs to me that some of our junk e-mail may be more interesting than most. This was a pitch from an international photo service trying to sell us a story and pictures from Nepal:

Dear David: “… a riot policeman screamed at me to stop taking pictures, but soon they were too overwhelmed to worry about us. A man who was standing on a rooftop throwing rocks was shot in the head. In an instant, the mood totally changed. The protesters stopped throwing stones. Slowly two or three moved closer, crying and pleading with the police. One opened his shirt and offered his chest to the police as a target. …

“The above is an extract from the blog written by Panos photographer Tomas van Houtryve. He has been reporting on Nepal’s turmoil for over two years. … If you would like to publish the story, please get in touch.”

That was a pretty appealing pitch, but we didn’t ask for the story; the event is several days past, the crisis in Nepal is easing and we were busy all week with other things.

Here was another one from an enterprising freelancer:

“Mr. Jones: Greetings from Barcelona — following is a query for a profile of a retiring Paris bouquiniste — one of the used booksellers who sell their wares out of picturesque green boxes along the river. It is one of the most unique small businesses in the world, and one that is being changed by the Internet.”

The rest of the pitch was very well written, but we didn’t take that one either. Some days I wish we had limitless space for stories — like the new technologies provide on the Internet.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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