The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Monday, January 12, 2004

My hometown newspaper (and indirect employer, as owner of the magazine I work for, Florida Trend), the St. Petersburg Times, has an online letter submission form for communicating your thoughts with the editors. That's not too unusual.

What is unusual is that, apparently, this form will be the only effective way to send a letter to the St. Pete Times for publication. In response to the load of spam that clogs the paper's inboxes, the Times has decided to stop accepting email from readers sent by means other than this form.

The paper let its readers know of the change in email policy in print; I can't find it anywhere on the site, but the statement does appear in today's Opinion/Letters to the Editor page. I won't retype it verbatim, as most of it is just step-by-step instructions on how to send a letter through the form. But here are some of the pertinent parts, mainly from the first two paragraphs, of the statement headlined "For Letters, Email Is Ending":

... Email has allowed readers to respond more quickly to events in the news and to the opinions we offer about those events. But with the growth of email has come the spread of spam...

The folks in Washington last month put into place a law to restrict junk email. Now the Times is taking steps to ward off the problems it has been encountering because of the spam deluge. To do that, we are changing the way readers can electronically send in their letters to the editor. We hope that the new method will be easy for readers to use and will also let us spend more time focusing on legitimate letters rather than the many extraneous, garbled or incomplete missives we now have to sift through...

For letters to the editor, this is essentially the end of email... As always, you may choose to send your letters to us by fax or by U.S. mail.

While I know what they're dealing with--firsthand, since Trend's email system is part of the Times', and those of us whose email addresses are public get dozens of spams every day-- and know the spam problem is legitimate, I worry about how this move will be perceived. The cynical reaction would be that the paper is using spam, real or not, as an excuse to make it just a little harder for readers to send in their feedback.

Forcing the use of a form, instead of the comparatively effortless email client composition, isn't that big an impediment. But it can easily be perceived as such.

The kicker is, the way I see it, this submission form isn't spam-proof. As I understand it, the automated programs that harvest the Web for email addresses to use for spam are accompanied by other spambots that fill in such feedback forms, including all the requested contact information fields. There are ways to thwart such bots, like sending back confirmation emails to the inputted email address that must be responded to before the original message goes through, but as I understand it, the Times isn't using this method (or are they?).

I also wonder what will happen to letters that continue to be sent to the established direct email addresses at the paper, like, etc. I can't believe these addresses would be decommissioned, as they would still be useful for other (non-reader) forms of communication. If they still work, would material sent there just be disregarded? Would email filters take them out before they ever get to their intended recipients? Would these addresses shoot back a permanent autoreply referring the sender to the letter form page? Questions, questions.

All in all, this just seems like an awkward move, and perhaps one that the rival Tampa Tribune can exploit for publicity. Trouble is, I'm not sure how the paper could convince its readers that this step was necessary just from a data management perspective; the only way to get that across is to hope the readers are also getting slammed with tons of spam themselves, and so can relate in an indirect way.