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MARCH 2000 | VOL. 4, NO. 3



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GARY BAUM is a staff technology writer for Renaissance Online Magazine.


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The "Swanson List" an Important Warning for E-mail Communicators

GARY BAUM

Most e-mail users are familiar with the embarrassing feeling of sending a note on its way without first finishing it, spell checking it or attaching a pertinent document to it. However, Average Joe can take heart in knowing that his past e-mail embarrassments were probably not as devastating as New York Observer writer Carl Swanson's recent journalistic and technological faux pas.

With a quick, careless stroke of the keyboard Swanson got himself into a heap of trouble in late January when the media beat reporter responsible for the Observer's famed "Off The Record" column sent an e-mail announcement to all of his contacts which indicated that he was leaving his job at the weekly to work for New York magazine.

Now, this would not be a noteworthy occurrence if Swanson had not accidentally revealed as his sources some of the most powerful people in the media industry, including Harper's Bazaar editor Kate Betts and Time managing editor Walter Isaacson.

Swanson committed this outrageous journalistic mistake by pressing the "carbon copy" (cc) button instead of just "blind carbon copy" (bcc). By doing this, the writer allowed all of the recipients of his e-mail to see the names and e-mail addresses of everyone else to whom he had sent the missive.

E-mail can be quite a slippery form of correspondence, at least when compared with others. A written letter is usually reread before being mailed to the recipient to ensure that it is indeed correct. On the other hand, vocal communication, such as a phone call (which could lead to a misspoken word or subconscious thought rising to the surface) might be denied in the future as its very occurrence could be questioned over time. However, whether replying to an entire mailing list, forwarding a message to the very person who shouldn't even know of its existence, or committing Swanson's error of not blind carbon copying a note; e-mail is a written, lasting form of communication that is very easy to mess up. And once that note has been sent it, is not only irrevocable but also conveniently archivable for later viewing.

Now, the fact that a journalist such as Carl Swanson slipped up in this way is more disastrous than any run-of-the-mill, embarrassing technological mistake made by Average Joe. This is because in Swanson's area of journalism, beat reporting (and in his case, the 'media' beat), contacts are a journalist's most important resource because they are the key to getting the necessary information required to be successful in the business. Every journalist nurtures his or her own set of contacts, turning their Rolodexes into their most valuable assets (which can be relied upon to get the facts from 'reliable sources' in regard to a particular story). Journalists try to keep their contacts shrouded in mystery not only to protect their sources but also to lend credence to their own name as both a writer and a media commodity. For instance, a media beat column written by Powerful Media founder Kurt Anderson, who happens to be a Swanson source himself, would be much more valued than anything John Q. Muckraker could write due to the fact that Anderson is pretty much at the center of the media industry.

Part of any journalist's value is as a contact commodity. That is, who the journalist knows can be as important as how well that journalist can write (and this is especially true in the area of beat reporting). Swanson completely skewered his high commodity by exposing his closest sources in the open carbon copy e-mail that he sent.

For instance, the fact that the editor of Details, Mark Golin, is on Swanson's e-mail contact list probably did not sit well with Golin's Conde Nast boss, S.I. Newhouse. Because of this Golin might therefore not want to talk to Swanson in the future because the media scribe's bad move put the editor in a bad light. So, Swanson can probably not count on Golin the next time the reporter needs that highly-coveted scoop because he has committed the egregious error of breaking his source's trust.

Swanson's mistake was, after all, not malicious but simply a product of laziness. His error in revealing his sources' identities most likely has hurt himself more than anyone else.

This is why most journalists probably felt bad for Swanson (with the exception of his detractors, of course). His integrity as well as his commodity as a journalist has been tarnished and it will most likely take him a long time to recover, at least in the eyes of his exposed contacts. Adding further fuel to the fire, a group of Italian spammers started to target unwanted advertisements at the highly-valued demographic of New York journalists a short while after Swanson's e-mail list was sent. One can only assume that Swanson did not endear himself any further to his sources after that particular round of spam.

Lately, the problems have kept on coming to those who were unfortunate enough to be on the now-infamous "Swanson List." According to "Chic Happens," a gossip column at the online fashion magazine Hint, the e-mail addresses will most likely appear on eBay and be sold to the highest bidder at some point in the future.

Swanson, it might be remembered, sent the e-mail announcement to let his friends, family, and closest sources know that he was moving on to New York magazine from the Observer. One wonders if Kurt Anderson, who was both on the list and is a former editor of New York, would have offered Swanson the job had he still had that particular position at the magazine.

The Swanson fiasco was certainly an extreme example of electronic communication carelessness, as it was magnified due to the complexities of the journalist's specific situation. However, Swanson's woes should serve as a warning to Average Joe to be as vigilant as possible in not pointing and clicking his way into a trouble-making e-mail nightmare.

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