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Basic Tech Tips For Journalists: Filter Out Email Overload

There’s a fine line between spam email and PR pitches when it comes to emails that land in reporters inboxes. Both of them can inundate the receiver and slow them from finding or seeing important messages.

As a reporter and blogger, I can’t even begin to count the number of misdirected and unhelpful messages I’ve had to wade through to find the actual messages that are relevant. I know I’m not alone when I get the umpteeth email about an event or release on legislation states and topics far away from anything I have covered or would ever cover. (Dear PR folk, it’s even more annoying when you misspell my name.) But it happens all the time, both on my work and personal email. Sometimes, these are just an influx of emails from an agency or group I want to receive messages from, such as the state Attorney General or New York Times, but that I don’t necessarily need to see immediately. Often, however, the messages totally miss the target and come from groups I’ve never heard of and certainly never signed up for.

I wanted to give some quick advice on how to make these messages more manageable. In a word? Filters. These will help move those less important messages out of your inbox and to the trash or to a folder for later perusal. I personally use Outlook (2012 on a Mac) and Gmail, so that’s what I’m going to explain here. However, most email programs and sites allow some form of filtering or rules, so the mechanics will be different, but the general idea should be similar.


Under the “Message” drop down, find and select rules, then in that drop down, select “Edit Rules”. This will bring up a list of rules that already exist, but you want to create a new rule. To do this click on the black + at the bottom. It will bring up this menu:
Edit rules menu
First, give your rule a name. Maybe it’s AG Press, Attorney General, Annoying PR person, or whatever. You just want it to be something you will recognize, especially if you plan to have a bunch of rules (aka: a bunch of filters). Now comes the fun part: Defining your filter.
make email rules
As in the image above, you need to tell the email program what you want it to do. You will have a bunch of options on what triggers this filter/rule to go into effect. You can set it to trigger if you get an email from someone specific, to a specific email address, containing certain words in the body or subject and more:

The most useful way I’ve found to use this is to use the email address (or addresses) the messages are sent from. This is helpful if you want to say flag or highlight all emails from your police chief, superintendent, boss, or whoever is important on your beat. This is a way to highlight those emails so you notice them first in your inbox. Alternately, say you regularly get email from a political group, public relations group or some agency that you don’t want flooding your inbox. Add the criterion and select “From,” then contains, and then put their email address in that box. If you want to apply the same filter to multiple addresses, add another criteria box and do the same — but make sure you change the Execute drop down at the top from “if all criteria are met” to “if any criteria are met.” If you’d rather filter out emails with the subject “Daily Update from X Company” do the same thing as above, but instead of from select subject and instead of contains in the second column, use “Starts with.” That’s handy for the emails that always contain the same subject or part of the subject is always the same, such as listservs or the New York Times top headlines, etc.

Now that you’ve told the program what you want to filter, tell it what to do when it sees those messages come in. In a similar manner as adding the criteria, add an action. You can do a range of actions, from forwarding it to someone to moving it from your inbox or flagging it. Personally, I find moving it into its own folder to be the most useful for this purpose. In your email program, create a folder for the email lists, daily news emails, PR pitches, etc. that you want to filter away from your inbox. Then, select “move message” as an action. It will give you an option of folders to move it to or the option to choose the folder you created.

From now on, when a new email comes in that fits your criteria to be filtered, it should be moved, flagged, or whatever.


The same basic idea applies in Gmail, except it’s a little more self-explanatory and easier to do. Open your email account and go to settings (the little cog in the upper right of the screen), then select the “Filters” tab. At the bottom of the page, click “Create a new filter.”

In the popup, you’ll go through the same process outlined above. If you want to filter out emails with a certain subject or keyword or from a specific sender, put that in the text box. One handy tip here: if you want to filter out all emails from a specific domain to a certain label/folder, out of your inbox, high priority, or directly to spam, or whatever, you can use an asterisk and then the email domain to apply the rule to every email from that domain. For example, I send all of the LinkedIn notifications to a LinkedIn label in gmail by filtering “from: *” and it allows me to peruse the requests, updates, etc. on my own schedule without cluttering my inbox.

Once you’ve set the criteria, click “Create filter with this search” (if you click the blue magnifying glass it searches your email, and you’ll need to select “More” to create the filter). Gmail will search your email for all instances to which this filter would apply. At that point, you can set the outcome of the filter and even easily apply it all the existing emails you have.

Here’s the fun part: Tell it what to do. Typically, what I do is select “Skip the Inbox” and “Apply the label” which effectively acts like you’re putting the messages into a folder. This means, you won’t see the email in your inbox but you’ll be able to access it from the labels on the side of your screen. When you check “Apply the label” you can choose to put it in a label you already have, or you can create a new label from that menu. And there’s even an option on this form to “Also apply filter to X matching conversations.” So, it can retroactively move, delete, apply labels, mark as read, etc. past emails clogging your inbox.

Final tip on Gmail, if you don’t want to go through all that hassle, you can also filter emails from one of the emails you received. Open the email you want to filter out and in the top menu select the “More” button and in that drop down, “Filter Messages Like These.” It automatically populates the filter form shown above with criteria that would filter the current message you have open by the sender. So easy! The only downside is you have to set up the filters for each list or address that sends you mail, so it works best if you regularly get notes from the same people or places. But even pulling these out of your general inbox can make a huge difference in what you need to wade through.

That’s a really rough introduction to rules/filters, but it gives you an idea of how useful they can be in helping manage email overload. Personally, in Gmail, I have about 30 different labels and more than 120 filters. It might sound obsessive, but it truly helps me manage hundreds of messages coming in on a daily basis with only the important messages I need to read and respond to now landing in my inbox. I can quickly scan the headlines/daily news emails that go to one label.

If you want further clarification on any of these, or want advice on how to set up your filter on a specific email you receive, send me an email, leave a comment or tweet me and I’ll try to help.

Note: This is the second in a series of posts I’ll be sharing on some “basic” web reporting tools, tips and tech skills that journalists new to digital tools may find useful but may not know about or may be embarrassed to ask about. Often, we cover the latest tools and trends on this blog, but for new journalists or those just getting comfortable with using the web or data as a reporting tool, these will hopefully give you a good introduction to build from. If you have something you want covered or an idea of something you think we should explain (for example, that question you’ve had to ask colleagues about — or answer questions about — a dozen times already) please send me a note @meranduh or or add your idea in the comments below. If you want to track these as they’re added, they’ll be under the tag “basics.”

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