Monday, May 11, 2009

The Hazards of Relying on Datelines
and Mailing Addresses

There was a time when a reader could depend on a news dateline to signify where a story occurred. If there wasn’t a dateline, then readers could rely that the story occurred where that particular news outlet was physically located. And people could rely on a mailing address to be the same as the physical location.

But of recent, that has been dicey.

Misleading Mail Delivery Addresses

But for more than a decade, USPS has often but inconsistently assigned a mail delivery address for one community when the physical location is in another. For example, if you read Patterson Mill Country Store’s mailing address it reads Chapel Hill but the store is located in Durham.

Likewise, there are several other visitor-dependent businesses in Durham that have a Chapel Hill mailing address but are located within the City of Durham. While the rationale for that has always been suspect, it is even more problematic now that GPS and location-based content is standard for the Internet, Cell phones and Navigation systems.

The side effect isn’t just inconvenience for travelers. It has tripped up newcomers enrolling children in school, registering autos, paying taxes, or subscribing to cable service to name a few. It has even tripped up Google which for some reason relies on zip codes rather than GPS coordinates. Weird for a company usually leading edge.

In the 1990’s, DCVB worked with City-County Planning with a lot of help from Herald-Sun editorials to get USPS to correct thousands of these mailing addresses so they would coincide accurately with physical locations. Some businesses relocating to Durham have recently been adamant that mailing address be changed from Chapel Hill to Durham to coincide with their true physical location.

But there are still thousands of locations in Durham that are presently required to use mailing addresses that read as though they are located in Butner, Hillsborough or Chapel Hill, robbing Durham of association with some great neighborhoods and businesses and confusing newcomers, visitors and even residents.

Misleading News Datelines

Datelines are the name of the city or nearest city to the location of the story, and appear at the beginning of the first paragraph. But Durham’s brand is often diluted or robbed of exposure when postal substations or business parks are datelined instead.

The Associated Press (the office for the Carolinas is located in Raleigh) guidelines are very clear about datelines as follows, but are often not applied consistently when dealing with stories that occur in Durham. Often they are given no dateline in Raleigh papers, implying the story occurred in Raleigh, or they use a dateline of RTP, which is a research park based in Durham, four miles from Downtown and encompassed on three sides by the City with a Durham postal substation. But business parks aren’t eligible for datelines.

AP publishes these guidelines for datelines:

  • Datelines on stories should contain a city name, entirely in capital letters. ’04 stylebook

  • A dateline tells the reader where we obtained the basic information for a story. ’06 Values & Principles

  • The dateline for video or audio must be the location where the events depicted actually occurred. ‘06

  • When a story has been assembled from sources in widely separated areas, use no dateline. ’04

  • In contrast, a byline tells the reader that a reporter was at the site of the dateline. ‘06

  • Bylines may be used only if the journalist was in the datelined location to gather the information reported. ‘06

These seem very clear. And when inconsistencies are spied by Durham Image Watchers and then DCVB raises objections, they are almost always corrected, but often by then the damage has been done as the inconsistencies have already been picked up across the country and the world.

Address designations and datelines are probably the most prolific and elemental touch points for branding a community. No amount of hoopla or marketing will outweigh confusion created at these most basic levels of identity.

It is imperative that:

  • Institutions based in Durham or in an area of the county encompassed by Durham issue news releases with accurate datelines. If they are based in Research Triangle Park or have RTP’s Durham postal substation, then the dateline is Durham or Durham at Research Triangle Park but not just the name of the business park.

  • Institutions in Durham must politely ask the nearest AP office to properly dateline Durham locations regardless of where that office is based or where its reporters live.

  • Local government working with DCVB and the 19-organization Durham Public Information & Communications Council need to work with district postal officials (which have relocated from Raleigh to Greensboro) and press for reassignment of Durham street delivery addresses for all locations in Durham City and County.

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