April 10, 2009 — -- For 20 years as a reporter and editor, I never worried about comments.
Sure, as a cub reporter, I used to die a thousand deaths every time a letter to the editor appeared in my newspaper that took issue with something I'd written. But it wasn't long before I learned two things:
1. In a newspaper, there isn't much room for letters to the editor -- maybe a half-dozen per day. And very few of them, even after a big, controversial story, were about you; and,
2. The editorial page editor is your best friend. In order to keep a balanced page, he or she is only going to run (at most) a couple letters about you -- and even then will try to maintain a balance between the laudatory and the cutting … and leave the crazies out.
So, for the next 20 years, as a reporter, magazine writer and magazine editor, I never sweated the "Letters to the Editor" page. Even as an editor, unless there was a serious factual correction I needed to investigate, I usually didn't even read the things -- but instead left it to my managing editor to decide what she wanted to print.
That all changed -- oh boy, did it change -- with the Internet. Between this column and the various stories I've written for publications that have appeared online, I figure in the last decade I've received about 10,000 comments. That's the population of medium-sized towns in some parts of the U.S. And fully half of those comments came with a single story -- the one I wrote last October about being ashamed of being a journalist.
For a few years, I went through the same shell-shock most bloggers and other online writers experience. Seemingly overnight, you go from a handful of generally polite printed comments to hundreds of screaming comments by people who not only don't agree with you, but call you a traitor, a Nazi, a communist, too stupid to live, a fraud … and who fervently pray that you will soon die horribly in a fire.
As you might imagine, this takes a bit of getting used to. After all, in daily life few of us regularly encounter people who hate us with such virulence based on such little information -- and when you do, you run for you life.
So, for about the first 1,000 comments, you tend to actually read what the commenters are saying and take it personally. And you start to understand why some really successful bloggers like Glenn Reynolds or James Lileks don't have comments sections. It must be very nice.
Still, you can get used to just about everything, even howling mobs of commenters wishing for your early death.
Then, something interesting happens: You write that column or blog entry that receives zero comments. Then you start missing all of those angry notes -- Why don't they hate me anymore? -- and wondering what you've got to write next time to get them back.
Pretty soon, in a feedback loop between writer and reader never possible in the print world, you find yourself writing on those topics, and in that style, that will provoke the most reader response. It may be craven, but it's a more reader-responsive form of writing than anything I ever had to face back in my newsroom days.