Friday’s letter to newsroom curmudgeons resulted in my busiest day ever on this blog, 4,882 views, smashing my previous record by 58 percent. After less than 72 hours online, the post is already my fourth most-viewed post in three-plus years blogging here. With more than 80 comments, I presume it already is my most-discussed post, though I should note that probably a third or more of those are me responding to comments.
Few things I have written have received as much praise or as much criticism (the two often go together), certainly not in their first day or two after publication. I try to make a common theme of this blog discussions of digital journalism and lessons we can learn about what works and what doesn’t. This post worked and failed in notable ways, so I should try to learn (or relearn) something from the experience:
Pronouns matter. I made some of the same points about curmudgeons in a post last fall. That post answered a question from someone asking how to “convert” curmudgeons to using Twitter. So I responded in the third person, essentially discussing curmudgeons behind their backs as him and her. That post got some attention, one of my top 40 in page views, but it only got half as much traffic as Friday’s post got on its first day. It made a difference, I’m sure, to address my post to curmudgeons, inviting people to email the link to a curmudgeon or to print it out for one to read. In another post a couple years ago, I wrote in the first person about how I redirected and rejuvenated my career. It offered sincere advice to others, and advice that stems from personal experience can be the most valuable advice. But unless you are sharing the lessons from your mistakes, advice offered in the first person always has a boastful tone, however helpful you’re trying to be. “I” is not an engaging pronoun. “You” is one of the most engaging words in our language, and it worked in this post.
Terminology matters. I am sure that my use of the word curmudgeon helped and hurt. It’s a blunt word and one that journalists use often in discussing resistance to digital change. I’m sure the word resonated with people frustrated with curmudgeons.
Well, even when you think you know what a word means, looking it up in the dictionary is always a good idea. You gain understanding of nuance. I do that occasionally, but not often enough. Chris Moran did that for me after the fact and noted that the Merriam-Webster definition is “a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man.” That’s not the definition I meant. I certainly mean and use it to be gender-neutral, as defined on Dictionary.com: “a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person.”
As I told Chris, I use the term to refer to journalists who cling to old ways and use outdated thinking, fear of change and flimsy excuses to rationalize their own refusal to adapt.
Chris was the only person to raise gender as an issue in response to the blog post, but others thought I was referring exclusively or too heavily to older journalists. As an older journalist myself, I did address this issue at times in generational terms. I was seeking to address my peers, assuring them that people our age can learn digital skills (because I too often hear them address these issues in digital terms). But I should have noted, as some commenters on the blog and on Twitter and Facebook did, that we have plenty of young curmudgeons in the news business resisting change. (I did note that I am probably older than them, but that still applies to most people in their 50s.
I don’t think I should have avoided the C-word. But defining the term in a letter to curmudgeons might have been a good idea and could have removed a distraction for some people.
Context matters: Another distraction for some people was the fact that this is such a longstanding issue in journalism. People noted that we dealt with curmudgeons in the 1990s when we went online and in the 2000s when blogging started to boom. Hell, I remember dealing with curmudgeons back in the 1970s when we started using computers and in the 1980s when we started using portable computers.
Writing in the second person, I focused on what I wanted to say to curmudgeons and I’m not sure that context would have been a constructive issue to raise in the blog post itself. But I could have noted the context in posting the link to Facebook, Twitter and Google+, proactively raising the here-we-go-again aspect that might have been a distraction to some people.
Avoid distractions. Making a point about how digital journalists are doing great journalism with new tools, I called NPR’s Andy Carvin the “best foreign correspondent in the world today.” I believe that and it might have made a good blog post to address that point and the valid arguments on both sides. The comment became the primary arguing point of the post for several commenters. David Carr of the New York Times dismissed it as hyperbole:
— david carr (@carr2n) April 8, 2012
It wasn’t hyperbole, but it also wasn’t the point of the post, and I didn’t back it up in the post, so every moment I spent addressing whether Andy was or wasn’t a foreign correspondent or the best foreign correspondent was a moment spent away from the central points I was trying to make. Andy even weighed in, noting that his work is different from colleagues “who put their lives on the line to report from the field.”
Save your strong statements for the point of a post. I could have made my point by calling Andy “one of the best international journalists today,” or by saying he was developing a new form of international reporting, and no one would have protested. Backing up my strong statement would have detoured the post into too lengthy a discussion of foreign reporting, so this was the wrong place for such a statement, even if I thought I could back it up. (Addressing this on its own would have made a good blog post, but I probably won’t, having belabored it too much in the comments already at this point.)
Retweets multiply your audience. I know that retweets drove the audience for this blog post. I didn’t bother counting the retweets, but I got dozens, starting shortly after I posted Friday morning and continuing through the weekend. Traffic was already going strong when Jay Rosen, with more than 80,000 followers, tweeted a link, and traffic just soared. It got another huge boost from Jim Romenesko, with nearly 50,000 Twitter followers, who both tweeted and blogged about it.
— Jay Rosen(@jayrosen_nyu) April 6, 2012
— Romenesko (@romenesko) April 6, 2012
Twitter and Facebook discussions were huge in driving traffic for this post, and they were easily the leading sources of referral traffic.
Join the discussion. I believe writers should join the discussion about their work, so I replied to comments on my blog and Romenesko’s, as well as in discussions on Facebook and Twitter, thanking people for praise (and criticism), answering questions and explaining when I thought people misunderstood (and learning from their misunderstanding. I didn’t bother to engage with a few anonymous shots in comments on Romenesko’s blog, but most of the discussion was civil and enjoyable, even when we disagreed. Participate in the discussion of your work and you will elevate the discussion and benefit from it.
Even long pieces aren’t long enough for some people. I was aware that my post was getting long (at least one person on Twitter or Facebook tweaked me about its length), so I decided seven reasons were plenty. But there are, of course, more than the seven reasons I cited for curmudgeons’ resistance to change, and people pointed out other reasons in the comments and on social media.
I think I was right to stop where I did, but some people noted that significant and related issues for curmudgeons are pay and skepticism or bitterness over business issues. I agree that both issues are notable, so I will address both briefly here:
- If you’re a curmudgeon who’s bitter about pay issues such as pay freezes, furloughs or fear that your veteran pay level makes you vulnerable to replacement by people with less experience, that’s one of the best reasons to embrace change. At this stage of your career, developing strong digital skills is the best way, if not the only way, to add to your value.
- If you’re bitter about newspapers “giving away” their content for years, or whatever mistakes you think they have made in their transition to a digital business model, get over it. Charging for content is no cure-all for newspapers’ digital problems. In fact, I believe it limits growth opportunities and is generally a huge mistake. I suggest broadening your view of the digital news business. You might start with When Losers Write History, an insightful piece on the news business by Matt Welch. I’m not going to debate the business issues at length here, just offer this piece of advice for newsroom curmudgeons: Focus on the things you can control, and you can control what you learn and do, not what your company does.
Don’t dwell on criticism. As noted, I received a lot of criticism on this piece on a lot of different reasons with varying levels of validity. Listen to criticism and learn from it, but don’t lose sight of the praise. I received way more praise than criticism for this blog post. When you write something that resonates with people, don’t let the criticism keep you from enjoying the praise.
— Steve Smith (@RedCladLoon) April 6, 2012
— Judy Sims (@Judy_Sims) April 6, 2012