Respect your readers — don’t ignore them

Columnists like to get in pissing matches with each other. It’s a spectacle for readers — who will get in the most blows??!!! — and it provides fodder for the next column, which columnists are always searching for. Back in the golden age of newspapers — the 80’s, for me — the News & Record had two columnists who would argue back and forth for days until the managing editor told them to shut up and write about something else.

Times have changed. Thanks to the Internet and blogs and comments, you don’t need a fellow newspaper columnist to take up the cudgels. Readers do it on their own.

Case in point: the New York Post’s Andrea Peyser characterized Greensboro as a “derelict town” on Thursday. Before News & Record columnist Jeri Rowe could respond on Saturday, Greensboro defenders voiced their thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter and in the comments section of the Peyser’s column. (For those keeping track, Peyser’s column was “liked” on Facebook 548 times; Rowe’s column, 401 times.)

What actually strikes me most by this kerfuffle isn’t Peyser’s egregious attack on the city. She is a columnist for the New York Post, after all. She, like many columnists, simply likes to stir the pot. The more response, the better. If it’s angry, that’s the best. From her Wikipedia entry:  The Washington Post has described Peyser as an “object of fascination among some media observers in New York, who count her unforgiving, exuberantly spiteful columns as a guilty pleasure.” New York magazine described her as “the Madame Defarge of the New York Post” in a 2004 profile.

But nowhere does she respond to questions and comments about her column. Granted, I’m not a great fan of online comments on newspaper sites. I used to be but I’ve seen how comment fields tend to be populated by anonymous commenters who write abusive, racist and stupid things. But many of the comments on Peyser’s column deserve a response. At this writing, there are 68 comments on her column. Most want an explanation for her characterization of Greensboro. Most of the comments are signed with seemingly real names, as opposed to those commenters who hide behind pseudonymns.

This is where journalists fail when they don’t engage with their readers. I understand not responding when the trolls take over a comment thread. I routinely told reporters at my old paper to monitor comments on their stories, to participate to help readers, to be polite and receptive, but to steer clear of crazy. (And it quickly gets crazy.)

My observation is that most journalists steer clear of comments, period. When I mentioned this on Facebook, several told me that comments fields are not the place to interact with readers. I acknowledge that, in many cases, that is true. But if journalists aren’t going to interact with their readers online, then perhaps comments should not be enabled on their stories. If the comments are so toxic that reporters won’t engage, what is the point? It’s certainly not contributing to a safe path for the community to discuss.

Yet, in the case of the Peyser column, readers are asking a good question that deserves an answer. When they are ignored, they feel disrespected. And no journalist, even at the New York Post, should want to disrespect her readers.