Dispatches from the living amongst journalism's walking dead

Month: June 2011

Why we should reply to users – even angry ones

Do you respond to your news org’s detractors?

Sure, we all talk about how engagement is SO IMPORTANT and we want to work with our readers, but when it comes to criticism, I so often hear social media coordinators or newsroom editors say, “Eh, I just ignore them, no point in replying.” Not so.

First of all, keep in mind, there are two types of detractors you’re likely dealing with here: Trolls and complainers. Complainers can be turned into fans – or at least neutral parties – but trolls will always be trolls, no matter what you do. While it can be difficult to sort through your hate mail/comments to find those that would benefit from a reply, it’s worth it if you can change at least one mind.

Case in point: Last Friday, we at The Huffington Post, along with every other news outlet, posted Sarah Palin’s emails from her time as governor of Alaska and asked readers to pore through them. In our post, we included an email address for people to send their observations. Predictably, this email address got quite a few angry notes from Palin fans, Republicans and people who generally just don’t like the idea of anyone reading anyone’s emails.

Some of the criticism came in as your standard troll fare – all caps with lots of name-calling and vulgarity thrown around with no actual explanation about why they were upset. Those were tossed out. The others – those who cited what their complaint actually was – got an email directly from me (not a nameless form email).

After reading through the first few dozen, I saw a few themes emerging. I wrote three basic form emails, one for each theme, and saved them in my Gmail. (If you’ve not used canned responses in Gmail Labs, you are missing out. It has so many uses.)  I then plowed through the emails and added the canned responses according to their specific complaint – if an email didn’t fit the canned reponse, I quickly wrote a custom note.

All in all, it took me about an hour to get through a few hundred emails. Did it make a difference? Well, check out these responses from some originally very angry readers…

Thank you for your reply, I am pleasantly surprised to hear from you.

I have been on aol for many years and had been thinking about switching and cannot understand why a news outlet would employ a far left blog to run its news page.  Your email is one reason to stay.  Please keep it objective.

Thank you Mandy for your surprising reply. I really did not expect to hear back from someone.

Thank you for responding. May God bless you and our country.

Thanks for taking your time to respond; an unexpected surprise — I understand and appreciate your position on the issue now

I do appreciate your response, and must admit that I was quite surprised to receive one.  Again, thank you!

I do thank you, again, for the response. I appreciate that you bothered to take the time a form a thought on it! 🙂

Admittedly, many of these had a “but” after these comments, but you could tell they were happy to hear from anyone. I had a few others where my troll radar was off – and now they are emailing me directly to tell me how awful I am. So goes the Internet. That’s what the mute button is for.

This same strategy goes for Twitter, Facebook and on-site comments. Pick who has an actual problem, a tangible complaint – and try to address it. Even if you only say “I’m passing this on to the right person,” at least you are showing that you’re listening.

Back in the day, newsroom customer service meant picking up the general phone number in the newsroom. Now we have a lot more channels for readers to lodge their complaints. All we need to do is pick up the phone.

Sarah Palin’s emails and a call for collaborative journalism

If you were committing an act of news on Friday, June 10, chances are every national news organization missed it.

Why? We all had boxes and boxes of printed emails of an ex-political official to go through. From the New York Times to Mother Jones/MSNBC/ProPublica, the Washington Post and my own employer – many national news sources spent enormous amounts of human capital to scan, upload, display, read, analyze and crowdsource Sarah Palin’s emails.

While I won’t delve into the newsworthiness of this effort (that’s a whole other Pandora’s box), I wonder why it had to take a village to carry it out. In the hours and hours everyone invested into this effort — what was missed?

Credit: RambergMediaImages

Credit: RambergMediaImages

Consider this… This information, in and of itself, was not exclusive. The FOIAed information was being released to all media that wanted it at the same time – so why did the media compete over the actual obtainment and presentation of the information?

Why couldn’t the nation’s largest news sources put aside their shared need to own information and just combine their efforts to quickly get these documents online in searchable form? Hey, stop laughing. I’m serious.

Think about it. When the documents dropped, one effort could have been taken to scan and text-translate these emails. There would have been one upload to a site like DocumentCloud, thus preventing the major backlog on that site Friday as we all tried uploading to the same place.

Instead of driving readers to several similar-but-different document displays, the heavy-hitters could have built a single site (off all our brand servers). This hypothetical .org could have an embeddable search functionality and open API that could be displayed on all news sites, from the Austin American Statesman to the Zanesville Times Recorder – and on several platforms.

It wouldn’t eliminate competition – it would just drive news organizations to compete smarter in a way that uses less resources. We could compete over crowdsourcing efforts, i.e. who built the best app on top of the API for readers to submit findings; who built the best contributor network; who had the best resources on the back end taking in the tips, etc.  We would also be competing on how quickly and intelligently we analyzed these found facts – and how we displayed them on our sites.

Think of the time that could have been saved had we split up the labor. Think of how much faster we coud have gotten to the actual journalism – and then moved on to the next story.

In an age where we’re all doing more with less, why can’t we come together over the simplest of agreements to aid the effort of newsgathering as a whole?  Why couldn’t it work?

Note: I’d be happy to start the beer summit for the top editors of news orgs to hash this out for future efforts. Seriously.

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