Guest post on story comments: How I won over Mr. Potter

August 31st, 2010

Yesterday, Old Media, New Tricks published a Q&A with an intriguing character named Roadgeek. If you manage a community, you know Roadgeek well (or at least a character much like him). He’s a voracious reader, a constant commenter — and a sharp critic of the mainstream media. Austin American-Statesman charity beat reporter Andrea Ball contacted the commenter, who writes from behind a movie character’s image, in hopes of figuring out what makes him tick … and she won him over. Here is a guest post by Ball, who explains how she did it and what she learned.

Guest post by Andrea Ball

I contacted Roadgeek in a fit of agitation. I had just written a story about homelessness and, in the comments section, he called me a “sob queen” and referred to my work, in general, as “treacle.”

I had just come off a nasty period where people had been calling me names on our website. One person called me a drama queen. Another told me to help the health care crisis by losing weight.

So when I saw Roadgeek’s comments, I was feeling particularly thin-skinned. I have a tendency to take the comments to heart anyway, but I was feeling pretty raw that day. I wrote to him and essentially whined about how he hurt my feelings. I know. Ridiculous. But being a professional doesn’t make me inhuman. I don’t think commenters realize how hard it is for reporters to see themselves called incompetent and stupid day after day after day.

We have an exceptionally difficult job. Every day we’re talking to new people, processing numbers and government jargon, scouring often incomprehensible documents, and trying to write it all within serious time and space constraints. But our readers routinely tell us that their third-graders can do a better job than we do.

My husband routinely tells me not to read the comments, but I can’t help it. I have to approve them for my blog. And I often get tips or story ideas from the readers in that way.

I often write to commenters, telling them I have seen their words and would like to continue the conversation. Sometimes, I’ve ended up interviewing those people for stories.

But Roadgeek was different. He came back at me hard. At first I was like, “What a psycho.” I even sent the email to few people in office. They laughed and told me to drop it.

“I can’t!” I insisted. “I must respond! I’m not going to let him think he scared me and that I’m off crying somewhere.”

“I see this as the beginning of a sick relationship,” my friend answered.

Before I responded, I re-read Roadgeek’s email and clung to the constructive parts. I realized that he had articulated a few sentiments to me in a way I’d not heard before. Suddenly I understood why some people really have a problem with my stories and it was something to ponder. I wrote back and told him that.

I was so excited when his next email to me was nice. I literally ran around the office saying that I had reached the pinnacle of my career and could now retire. (And yes, I know how freakish that is.)

Through this experience, I’ve learned that commenters aren’t always who they think they are. Yeah, some of them are just foul. But a lot of them are just venting and, when pressed to articulate their thoughts, are actually very insightful. They can really broaden your perspective. Roadgeek has done that for me.

I’ve also learned that keeping a cool head — which I am not known for — has its benefits. I could have popped off a nasty email to Roadgeek and made an enemy. Instead, I took a step back. Now I have a relationship with someone that challenges me in a positive way. When I write a story, I have a crotchety Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder screaming, “NO TREACLE!!”

As I’ve told all my coworkers, “I’ll never win a Pulitzer, but I’ll always have Roadgeek.”

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Entry Filed under: comments,Guest Post

  • Pingback: A Q&A with Mr. Potter, a story commenter with attitude | Old Media, New Tricks

  • http://twitter.com/ed_han ed han

    Andrea, just goes to show that sometimes, common sense and conventional wisdom are a buncha hooey. They're great for 99%, but that 1%…

  • http://twitter.com/GinaMChen Gina Chen

    This is a great post! At my newspaper, we had a commenter named Lakerman, who was our RoadGeek. I love the approach you took to dealing with it. Good for you!

  • Jaime

    “We have an exceptionally difficult job. Every day we’re talking to new people, processing numbers and government jargon, scouring often incomprehensible documents, and trying to write it all within serious time and space constraints. But our readers routinely tell us that their third-graders can do a better job than we do.”

    I couldn't have said it better.

  • Pingback: Web Up the Newsroom

  • Pingback: Human response disarms negative online commenters, tweeters | Web Up the Newsroom


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