A few years ago, a columnist who works for one of the largest newspapers in the country told me over breakfast that he never checks reader response to his work.
“Too many personal attacks,” he said. “They’re mean.”
I suggested that couldn’t possibly be true of every reader who weighs in. Surely, I said, we can learn from how people respond to our work.
“I’m not going to let them in my head,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t need to know what’s on their minds.”
I’m no stranger to the angst of journalists wringing their hands over what the Internet has wrought. I’ve been one of them, particularly when it comes to anonymous comments on news websites.
Still, I think journalists should pay attention to how readers respond to their work. Why are we still in this business, if not to connect?
As a columnist, I can’t respond to every email and comment, and I happily skip past the trolls, but I do try to get a feel for what readers are thinking. We can’t have a conversation, even a virtual one, if I’m doing all the talking.
Having said that, I admit that it took me too long to get here, Web-wise.
Over the past six years, I went from vowing never to join Facebook to using it as a primary way to interact with readers, one link and discussion at a time. I started small, but after it became clear that a columnist can’t expect privacy on Facebook, I made all my posts public and opened my page to subscribers.
I have no idea why more than 126,000 subscribe or whether most of them are even real. What I do know is that over time, enough people have participated to build a community willing to discuss just about anything.
For the first year, I posted regular reminders to keep it civil – no personal attacks, no misogyny or bigotry – but I rarely do that now. Regular visitors help to moderate by either publicly calling out inappropriate posts or sending me alerts in private messages.
I had no idea this could happen, and I am moved by the efforts of strangers to preserve what we’ve built. It tells me that many people long for a safe place for conversation, wherever it may take place. It tells me, too, that news organizations could benefit from investing the resources to build the same sort of community on their sites.
So often, our Facebook community makes me think differently – often just when I thought my mind was all made up. Readers also remind me that on any day I’m opining for Creators Syndicate or sharing a personal story for Parade magazine, I’m competing for attention with the daily mess of their busy lives.
Nowhere is this more evident than it is in the responses to a question I post every month or so: “What’s on your mind today?”
Life unfolds, one comment at a time.
On April 4, more than 340 weighed in. A sampling, using only first names because they didn’t sign up for this column:
Carol: “Why still no answers in the plane disappearance? And glad it’s Friday.”
Mark: “Nonstop overtime, but layoff comes August. But it’s a good job and good people. So I need to be thankful.”
Amber: “I was legally wed to my love yesterday, the weight of it is setting in today.”
Michelle: “I am getting divorced and I saw my ex driving yesterday. That hurt very much. I have to let go and face life again but I feel lost and alone.”
Judy: “And I wish I could help Michelle and take her pain away ... she is not alone.”
Mike: “My kids, wife, grandkids, being around to see them grow up, being mobile enough to not burden anyone, and how great my heart doctor is.”
On and on it went. Worry for the grieving at Fort Hood. Hope for a new business. Despair over the U.S. Supreme Court’s campaign finance ruling. Joy at the beginning of baseball season. Some posted words of encouragement to those facing divorce, surgery and tough decisions.
One post at a time, these readers remind me that most of life is happening somewhere else.
Somewhere other than in my own head, to be precise.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.