Based in Chicago, Illinois, The Freelance Beat is a blog exploring the triumphs and challenges that freelance journalists encounter in their early and mid-careers.

Is Email Tracking Too Invasive for Editors?

Is Email Tracking Too Invasive for Editors?

I was one of thousands of readers who read Jezebel’s expose of Lauren Duca, the former Teen Vogue columnist who penned the now-viral essay, “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.” The piece, written by senior reporter Anna Merlan, closely examined Duca’s offensive Twitter posts and her alleged mistreatment of her co-workers as well as questioned her place within “The Resistance.”

Once I devoured the article and returned to Twitter, I discovered several writers and editors were concerned by Merlan’s usage of a mail tracking system, which indicated that Duca had received and did not respond to her inquiries. Many journalists were in fact surprised by the fact that such a tracker is a commonly used tool in the first place. The surprise surrounding this practice likely also spurred this expository piece in New York magazine’s The Cut.

Whether the use of email trackers is creepy to you depends on what side you’re on. Is it a tool to help creatives, or just another way to spy on people? We had read receipts for Outlook emails. We can track the packages snail mail we send. Don’t get me started on the marketing emails aimed at getting me to spend money I don’t have. And yet, there’s something weird about knowing someone can know whether you read their emails…

Thinking back on my brief period as an editor reminds me of how hard it is for editors to keep up with email. Back when I was the interim managing editor of a small Chicago newspaper, our editorial email address would get between 50 and 100 emails a day, conservatively. I’d set aside about 20 minutes of my day to sift through the junk mail and sort out the potentially doable PR pitches.

If we were managing that amount of email, I could imagine what volume of emails lands in a national publication’s pitch inbox. At that level, writers from around the world are constantly vying for a spot in your publication, and obtaining inbox zero is likely impossible. As editors managing a growing workload with shrinking resources, responding to everyone’s pitch likely feels like dream than an actually attainable goal.

The hard truth that I think that freelancers forget—the truth that editors know in their gut—is that editors don’t owe us a response. If they get back to us to a timely fashion, it shows that they’re interested in our story idea or at least courteous enough to respond. But, just like journalists can’t get back to every PR pitch, it’s unreasonable to expect a response from editors, hence why we stress over when to follow-up in the first place.

On the other hand, multiple factors are driving the trend toward email trackers. Yes, the Jezebel writer used hers while communicating with a source. I don’t typically do that, but I have used trackers when pitching to potential clients or sending invoices.

On the surface, email tracking seems like another layer of invasive technology in an already invasive world. Our apps track (and sometimes share or leak) our location data, shopping preferences, and other personal information to get us to buy stuff we don’t need, and that’s so ubiquitous that we often don’t push back or ask how our data is being used. At least when signing up for a corporate email list for discounts or an average newsletter, you’re consenting to having your email open rate monitored.

Today, editors are juggling an increased workload with slimmer budgets and fewer staffers. However, consider for a second what it’s like to be a freelancer. We’re outside an editor’s office, so we have no real connection or insight into what’s going on at editorial meetings or with staffing changes. As editors weather waves of layoffs, one editor with whom a freelancer has had a great relationship could be out the door in a heartbeat. This discontinuity is stressful for freelancers who need to have their ideas heard.

Then, there’s the problem with invoicing. Freelancers don’t magically get paid every two weeks. Our earnings are directly tied to our output. Any freelancer will be able to name several outlets that take forever paying their contributors. And because publication budgets are shrinking, freelancers can incur more debt as they foot the bill for whatever reporting expenses the outlet refuses to cover. Not only are many of us digging ourselves deeper into debt, but we’re also tired of waiting for invoices to be processed and paid for work often already completed.

It has been very easy for an editor to say that they haven’t received an invoice or a pitch. But in the age of email tracking, it’s even easier to detect who’s lying and how those lies affect a freelancer’s bottom line. And as pay rates for freelance journalists shrink, it’s crucial that we know who is actually paying attention to our concerns. If a publication is slow to payout, say $250 for a web story, word will get around to other freelancers. The smart ones who aren’t caught up in the prestige of a publication and treat their writing like a business won’t stand for that kind of treatment.

For me, email tracking my pitches ensures that my email was received, read and considered. In a way, it’s beneficial to editors, because it removes the need for repeated follow-up emails. If I see that you opened my timely pitch email but didn’t respond within 24 to 48 hours, I move on. But if you open it several times, it’s a sign that you might be interested in the idea.

As was pointed out in The Cut, there are tracker blockers you can install to maintain some privacy. No one could blame editors for wanting that. But to eliminate the need for such tools, editors should promptly respond to payment inquiries and publications should set up modern payments platforms and pay livable rates as well as cover reporting costs.

Until the economics of our industry improve, freelancers will continue to adapt to constrained conditions. Our livelihood depends on it.

Do you think email trackers are creepy? Tell me in the comments or email me at

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