10 things to remember about your readers, when they start to tick you off

Great reader comments, tips and blogs can help elevate a news website into a true community, one where people come together to learn from each other, enjoy each others’ company and maybe even help address some of the “real-world” problems that any community faces.

Of course, on the flip side, trolls and know-it-alls can make reading the comments on a website a visit to virtual hell. So when some of your readers begin to tick you off – either for what they do, or what they don’t – here are 10 things to remember… after you’ve taken a deep breath.

You can’t force readers to care

No matter how much work you put into a piece, no matter how much news you thought you broke in it, no matter well you think told the story, you simply cannot force readers to care. The best you can do is to think about your readers’ needs and interests and then craft an engaging narrative or presentation that rewards whomever pays attention. But even then, some readers are just going to say “meh” and click over to the dancing cat videos. Even if you produce a dancing cat video, somebody’s still going to say “meh” and click to someone else’s dancing cat video. Don’t let it upset you.

See what’s keeping people from participating

While you shouldn’t get upset by a lack of engagement, don’t dismiss it, either. Always be curious about your site, and how people are – or are not – interacting with it. Create a new dummy account every few weeks, just to make sure your registration process is working the way you want. Ask friends to create accounts and jump in now and then, to get fresh perspectives on how newcomers react to your online community. Is there a tech problem that’s keeping people from registering, commenting, blogging, or submitting or embedding photos or video? Are new users getting private message spam from lurkers on the site? Are new users having a hard time tracking the conversations they want to follow? Find the barriers that your site’s putting up, and work to take them down.

Engage on social media – don’t promote

Twitter and Facebook are great media for pushing new stories to your followers. But if that’s all you are using those services for, you’re likely leaving your readers cold. So don’t get upset when your story links fail to elicit a slew of RTs and Shares. Try some new ways to engage your followers, instead. Post “wild art” photos. Ask questions about favorite places to eat, visit, etc. RT and Share the competition, too. Show your readers that you’re not some uptight, Fortune 500 media conglomerate, but an accessible neighbor they can talk with.

Remember that readers – together – know more than you do, even if you know a lot

So even if one or two readers really make you mad, remember than you need the rest of them. Therefore…

Don’t blow up at your readers

Stand up and move away from your desk, go offline for a few moments – always have a plan for what you will do when someone really enrages you, a distraction that gives you the time you need to calm down before you reply in way you’ll almost certainly come to regret.

Always be kind

No matter what tone a reader takes with you personally, if someone emails or messages you directly, try to always respond, and with kindness. Sometimes a person’s heat in a message just shows that they have passion for what you’re covering, and they can’t yet direct it. So it spews out at you. A calm, thoughtful response sometimes can redirect a hostile critic into a passionate advocate for your work, and for your community.

Keep your readers interested in the topic, not in you

Sorry to make this sound so rough, but, ultimately, nobody cares about you. Or your “brand.” They care about what you cover, and maybe even about what you experience in covering it. But any time or words you spend trying to get people to care about you is better spent keeping people interested and even excited about the topic (or community) you’re covering. Remember, a professional writes and reports to address your readers’ needs, not your own.

And I’m not trying to be snobbish about “professionalism” here. I mean this literally. The people who make money doing this stuff (by definition, the professionals) are the one who write for their readers’ needs, not for their own.

If they do get interested in you, don’t let go to your head

That said, if you do your job well, it’s likely that some readers will conflate you with what you’re covering and become fans. Just as you shouldn’t get too upset by trolls, don’t allow your head to get too big when people compliment you, either. Thank them graciously, then move on.

Know when to stay out, versus when to jump in

Sometimes you have to act like a parent, which means that there comes a point when you need to let your kids tie their own shoes. In this case, there will come a point when you ought to let the community take up its own causes and extinguish its own flame wars. You don’t always have to have the last word. Sure, there’ll be times when you will need to answer direct questions, and model the type of behavior you want from readers. But don’t forget to back off when your community is ready to walk on its own. Don’t get upset if they fall down a time or two before they get the hang of it. Every parent’s been there.

Ask yourself if the audience you get is really the audience you want

If your bad feelings about the audience you’ve cultivated ever become too much, even after taking time outs and trying to lead responsibly, you might need to face the tough question: Is the audience you’ve attracted really the one you want? If it isn’t, it’s okay to shut things down and start over. On the flip side, maybe you anticipated attracting a certain type of reader, but found instead that your work resonated with others. If you’re okay with that, embrace the change. Go where your work is needed, and appreciated.

Whichever path you choose, an effective online community leader needs to feel some peace with his or her audience. You can’t do this job if you’re always angry, frustrated or disconnected with the people you’re supposed to serve.

Hyperlocal news sites stay away from election endorsements

It’s election primary season in the United States, and I’ve noticed a traditional element of newspaper election coverage missing from the hyperlocal news websites I follow.


My first full-time job in newspapers was writing editorials, so I’ve spent a fair number of days interviewing local politicians who shuffled through our offices in pursuit of an endorsement. We told ourselves that our endorsements helped educate local voters and led to more enlightened decisions at the ballot box.

I soon learned that the folks in the newsroom didn’t always share that view. (/understatement)

So I decided to email many of the editors I know who are running independent local news websites, to see what their plans were, and what they thought about the tradition of news endorsements.

Not one of the editors replied that he or she was planning to endorse this election season. Not only that, I got a “No!”, a “NO” and an “absolutely not” among the responses, so some editors appeared to, uh, feel strongly that endorsements were a bad idea.

The most common reason I heard why local news websites wouldn’t endorse was that they could not. They had organized as non-profits, so they are barred from endorsing political candidates due to tax law. That point should help illustrate how decisions about business models affect editorial operations down the line. If you’re considering starting a news website, and making endorsements is important to you, then you’ll need to consider how important they are before thinking about taking the non-profit route.

Non-profit or for-profit, though, the editors I contacted were unanimous in opting out of endorsing.

“It is rather pompous of a news organization to try to tell people who they should vote for,” wrote Tracy Record of the West Seattle Blog. “What makes our opinion any more important than yours? Our job is to bring you information, not our opinion.”

Polly Kreisman of theLoop echoed that thought. “Why on Earth would a local publication that readers trust for news and curation of information put its own political opinions on the line? This is not the New York Times.”

The Sacramento Press‘ Ben Ifeld challenged the old editorial pages ideal that endorsements were an effective form of voter education.

“I’m also not convinced it is a good way to educate the public and engage them in healthy debate. I would much prefer covering everything we can and empowering our community to write editorials and have lively debate in person and on our site.”

While these start-up editors rejected the idea of endorsements, they were nearly unanimous in embracing a responsibility to help inform and engage potential voters in the weeks leading up to an election, with Oakland Local‘s Susan Mernit calling this role “critical.”

Tim Jackson of New River Voice and Lindsey Chester of Cary Citizen both cited question-and-answer features they ran as examples of how local sites can help educate voters without endorsing. Each publication sent candidates for an office identical questionnaires, and the sites ran the candidates’ responses online.

“We felt it gave everyone an equal chance to connect with our readers, and gave our readers a chance to compare and contrast the candidates’ styles in their own unedited words,” Chester wrote.

While I enjoyed my time interviewing candidates in the weeks leading up to our endorsements when I worked in print, I was often bothered that many of these races were for boards and councils the paper rarely covered otherwise. I felt like we were parachuting in every two to four years with a hastily reported endorsement (which was often colored by the editor’s personal partisanship). But with an entire metropolitan area to cover, and a limited amount of news hole each day, this was the reality of newsroom budgeting.

One of the great potential strengths of “hyperlocal” news sites is that they can give day-to-day attention to school boards and municipal councils the big metro papers notice only at election time. And every one of the editors I wrote was eager to talk about their local election-related reporting. But we can’t forget that many readers don’t read the news on a daily basis, as we do – whether that’s a big print metro or a hyperlocal website. They “parachute” into the news around election time just like so many editorial writers.

Endorsements were designed to provide an easily accessible way for part-time readers to catch up on what someone who supposedly is paying attention (and is allegedly neutral) has to say about various candidates. If we’re to leave endorsements behind, I think it’s important for hyperlocal publishers to find other features and tools that allow infrequent readers to get up to speed easily, as well. And to keep those links around in a prominent position. Don’t be afraid to repeat Tweets and Facebook page posts to draw attention to your voter guides, candidate Q&As and community forum schedules, either. This work is important, and publishers should be proud of telling people about it – as many times as it takes for them to notice.

But, as with anything you publish, always keep your community’s needs in mind. As important as it is to cover the news that drives election decisions, sometimes readers don’t need more political coverage. The Batavian‘s Howard Owens wrote to me about the backlash he felt from readers over his “saturation coverage” of a nationally-covered special election last May.

“In hindsight, it’s the worst mistake I’ve made as publisher of The Batavian,” he wrote. “Never again will I cover an election with such zeal, or anything approaching it. We received numerous complaints along the lines of ‘I want my old (The) Batavian back.’ Our site traffic fell by more than 30 percent. It took several weeks to get it back. The turnout for the election was abysmal, even in our county, which, in my estimation, had the best coverage available. People simply didn’t care about the election and were actively hostile to the over coverage of it.”

If you think you can do better than Patch, go ahead

Many online journalists have been clucking about AOL’s Patch this week, after Jim Romenesko posted on reported changes coming at the network of local news websites.

According to Romenesko’s source, Patch is asking its local editors to run additional formula stories (lists, best-of tournaments, etc.) to goose traffic while also implementing employee review procedures that will result in the dismissal of workers who don’t improve their performance (in the eyes of higher-ups) within 30 days.

Sorry, but – yawn.

Any journalist who believes that Patch is doing something here that newspapers never did before the Internet either (a) never worked at a newspaper before the Internet or (b) has developed a convenient case of amnesia about that era. Newsrooms have been creating and running gimmick stories to attract readers since, well, long before I was born. As they should.

If you want readers to develop a habit of reading you, you need to give them content that grabs them, whatever their mood. That means mixing longer, in-depth investigative pieces with shorter stories, news-you-can-use tips and a variety of other features, including comics, lists and yes, even ads and coupons. Online, it can mean shaking up your front page with polls, discussions, lists and infographics, as well as blog posts and links to longer stories. If Patch wants to change focus and go with easy, formula pieces for a while to pump up the traffic, so be it. They wouldn’t be the first site to do so and won’t be the last.

Newspaper managers have been cooking up excuses to ride reporters out of town for decades, too. I’m reminded of the urban legend about sharks that quit swimming will die. Our industry’s version? If a news editor doesn’t can a reporter every few weeks, he or she’s just gonna drop dead at a budget meeting.

Sure, the humor’s dark, but if you don’t want to live under the constant threat of layoffs, you need to either start publishing for yourself or finding another field in which to work. Arbitrary dismissals are now part of corporate journalism’s DNA.

Hey, I’m no fan of Patch. As I’ve written before, Patch’s corporate overhead puts the network as a huge cost disadvantage versus locally owned and operated hyperlocal websites. It wouldn’t surprise me if what Romenesko wrote about this week didn’t turn out to be the first step toward Patch’s inevitable collapse.

But don’t think for a minute that many of those locally-owned and operated hyperlocals Patch competes with aren’t trying many of those same cookie-cutter, gimmick, formula stories in an effort to boost their own traffic. (Full disclosure: I’m running my annual “best theme park attraction” tournament right now.) Heck, like Romenesko, I think that the “what’s happening with the vacant storefront?” feature is a brilliant idea. That’s an excellent example of the type of local news people want to read from their neighborhood.

And the local publishers I know are even tougher than corporate publishers in holding the line on labor costs. I’ve paid for freelancers, but am much more parsimonious about handing out assignments than the newspaper editors I know. You get extra tight with expenses when it’s your money that’s getting spent.

If you want to attack Patch, hit ’em for attempts to gag their reporters after Romenesko ran his piece. Hit ’em for the futility of running hyperlocal sites through a top-down, national network. But spare me the “holier than thou” stuff.

Do you want journalism to succeed? Do want to see more money for more investigative reporting? Do you want to see more attention paid to good work from skilled reporters?

Then you’d better get working on building a community of engaged readers – with whatever tools or gimmicks you need. Patch will live or die on its own. If you think you can do better – do it. Then Patch can either step up its game and compete with better content, or die the death that so many of us have predicted for it.