One of the first things Sarah Corley, the communications director for Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, teaches new press interns is her meticulous email-management system, which involves some 170 folders and subfolders into which she sorts every electronic message she does not immediately delete. Within her folder for media requests, Corley has subfolders for both national media and Oklahoma media, and subfolders within those subfolders for individual publications. Corley aims to leave the office with zero emails in her inbox at the end of every workday.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Matt Pearce, a national reporter for the Los Angeles Times, who describes his inbox as "a failing banana republic." (When we spoke, his "unreads" had surpassed the 4,000 mark.) "It's a system that's totally collapsing on itself," he says. But he doesn't worry about missing important emails, because, he points out, there are so many other ways to contact him. And if something is truly important, the sender will usually follow up. "I function on an emergency system, where I will respond when a crisis comes to a head in my inbox," he explains.
Most everyone has to deal with the drudgery of managing email, but few face as significant a daily onslaught as Washington journalists and communications staffers. It's not unusual for a plugged-in hack or flack to get many hundreds of emails a day. (A recent report from the Radicati group, which does worldwide market research on the subject, projected the average number of business emails received per user per day in 2015 to be 88.) Recently, I asked approximately 25 D.C. communications staffers and reporters how they handle the deluge. What emerged was a portrait of a media-communications ecosystem that is starkly divided. There are members of the "inbox-zero" crowd, like John Meza, communications director for Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who aim to "process" all their unread messages every time they check their email, extracting the necessary information and filing or deleting their messages throughout the day. ("It's almost muscle memory now," Meza says.) And then there are members of the inbox free-for-all crowd—who don't.
"Inbox zero is the paleo of email," says Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce. "It's totally arbitrary and requires so much energy."
"I feel terrible about it, but I'm in too deep," says Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post, who has no system for managing his messages. (His inbox has about 125,000 emails in it, though only 341 were unread when we spoke.) He says at this point, the idea of sorting through his email is so daunting that his only real way out would be to delete everything and start fresh. "I have no good options," he says. "I have the nuclear option and that's it." Dave Weigel of Bloomberg (21,000 unread) says he generally doesn't feel bad about his laissez-faire approach, but he acknowledges that things do occasionally get lost in his inbox: "I've missed things, and I don't know how to rectify that," he says. "I've never come up with a good system."
"There are zero-inbox people, and everyone else," says Rosie Gray, a reporter for BuzzFeed Politics who has nearly 30,000 unread emails in her inbox—a number she says doesn't bother her: "I respect their thoroughness, but that's not who I am." Gray is skeptical about the benefits of an inbox cleanse, and she's not the only one. "I still have to determine whether or not this matters," says Alec MacGillis, whom I used to work with at The New Republic and who recently joined ProPublica. "I keep waiting for someone to tell me if there is any real downside—besides just feeling unclean." Pearce agrees: "Inbox-zero is the paleo of email," he says. "It's totally arbitrary and requires so much energy."
Most in the inbox-zero camp, on the other hand, can't imagine an alternative. Zeke Miller, political reporter at Time magazine, cringes at the thought of people who let their inboxes go. "That's just terrifying," he says. "I've seen inboxes with thousands of unreads, and that's like nails on the chalkboard for me."
Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post strives for inbox-zero to a point she deems both "embarrassing" and "obsessive." And while her organizational scheme doesn't guarantee perfection, she says, it "combats the horror" of letting her emails pile up. "I was a dedicated letter-writer when I was younger," she says. "So I feel a moral shame about emails left unanswered." She's not alone: "My basic philosophy is that people get lost in email when they don't keep up," says inbox-zero-er Matt Bai, a national political columnist for Yahoo! News. Neglecting your email leads not only to clutter but to unresponsiveness, he says, "which is more than a failure of organization—it's inconsiderate."
Not everyone falls neatly into one camp or the other, of course. Kate Bernyk, press director at the Center for Reproductive Rights, says she has never been able to stick to any filing system for her inbox, but her job leaves her no choice but to be diligent about reading and deleting, at least. "In media, everyone has an urgent deadline," she says. "So I have a huge anxiety to be as responsive as possible."
For the most part, those buried in unorganized messages say they want to do better. "I feel terrible about it," Cillizza says. "I've spent whole days unsubscribing myself from press releases and mailing lists to try and stanch the flow. Even that doesn't really do it." MacGillis also sometimes wishes he could change his ways. "I feel all of the usual guilt, shame, and inadequacy," he says. One House member's press assistant—who asked not to be identified—admits that he once aspired to an empty inbox, but he receives 800 to 1,000 emails per day and has found it impossible to keep up. When I ask how many unreads he has, he quickly replies: "Important ones? Zero." (He has roughly 800 unread messages that don't fall into that category, he allows.) "I was an inbox-zero person for the first four months," he says. But then he took on more responsibilities, "and my life fell apart."
It isn't just the inbox-infinity people who see the virtues of the other side. Christine Jacobs—communications director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, and a zero-inbox person—says, of the other team, "In a way, they might be healthier." But Bai doesn't think he's missing out on anything: "That would make me crazy," he says about the prospect of letting his inbox spin out of control. "I'd need therapy for that. But then again, I can't walk by a crooked painting and not straighten it."