Back in the late 1980s, a new phone system was installed at the News & Record. It had all the bells and whistles: voicemail, call forwarding and conference calls. Plus, it replaced the traditional phone bell ring with a cooler, softer, pulsing ring tone, similar to this.
Who knew that new phone system would be a symbolic canary in the coal mine for the newspaper industry.
We loved the new phones. The office was quieter, we could smoothly transfer callers to the right phone number, and we had voicemail. When we were on deadline or thinking through an important story, we could let calls go to voicemail.
Eventually, the phone system had the effect of making one of the two administrative assistants in the office unnecessary. We didn’t need someone to answer the phones when they answered themselves.
A year or so later, my boss stuck his head into my office and told me to step into the newsroom.
“What do you see?” he asked.
I hate these types of questions.
“A newsroom?” I said. I knew that wasn’t the answer he was looking for, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
“People,” he said. “Look at all the people! All working at their desks.”
I was thinking that was a good thing, but I waited.
“I just called up here to see if I could reach someone,” he said. “I called 10 phone numbers and no one picked up!
“What do you think a reader with a story tip would do? What if a source was trying to return a call? What if a reader was calling to compliment us? They’d get frustrated and hang up. We’re in the business to serve our readers. Get your people to do their jobs and answer the damn phones!”
He was right, and I was guilty. I often let voicemail screen my calls. His small sampling indicated I wasn’t alone. If I recall correctly, the phone would ring three times and go to voice mail. Where once the phone would ring until it was answered, now it was simple to ignore.
He reminded me that readers were our life-line to the community. Rather than avoiding them, I should have initiated and embraced the conversation with them.
In the end, the new phone system may have improved our efficiency, and the bean counters would have said it improved our productivity because it reduced personnel costs.
But it hurt hurt our effectiveness in serving our community needs, which, for a local newspaper, was a terrible trade-off.