Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Don't Forget the First Commandment

Teh Internets r mad at U.
The first commandment of writing is this:

Know Thy Audience.

Where some writers fail in obeying this commandment is acknowledging that, truth be told, the commandment simply cannot be obeyed if the writer decides his or her audience is a static one.

Take my blog, for example. I have no idea who reads this stuff. I have a general sense, thanks to services like Clustrmaps and SiteMeter, of what they come to read, but as for knowing who they are and precisely why they read the stuff I write, I haven’t a clue. So I make up an audience. Mostly, they’re like me, Internet surfers seeking entertainment, solace, information. They may visit my site for a second or two after some Google search and decide, rightly most of the time, that what I write isn’t what they’re looking for. That’s because generally I write for myself, for self-satisfaction, self-edification, selfishness. Take it or leave it, I subliminally say to those who come here. Most leave it. And I’m fine with that. If I focused my writing more, I’m sure I would find a core audience growing around the things I produce. But that’s not the object of this blog. I know my audience. It’s an audience of less than a dozen regulars. I think, for the most part, I treat them fairly well.

Other projects are more focused. The Cokesbury Party Blog, for example, is targeted toward those familiar with the works of Sinclair Lewis, or who have an interest in commentary on the Cokesbury Party Book. Again, a narrow audience. An infinitely small audience, according to my numbers.

At Uncharted, we’re broader: We’re looking for those who go on adventures and want to share them with others, all the while reading and viewing what others have done. We may be reaching that audience. We may not be. With the Internet, it’s not always easy to tell because, in a sense, Internet users are just like newspaper readers: You never hear from them unless you screw something up.

Cintra Wilson, a New York Times fashion columnist, found that out this month after she wrote a snarky column about JC Penney’s debut in Manhattan and got everybody and their auntie stirred up.

Her column is here. It is, on the surface, rude. It is, taken in context with Wilson’s other columns for the New York Times, par for the course. She’s a lively writer not too terribly shy in expressing herself. She has a definite voice that many other writers would sacrifice Smurfs to attain. But the comments her JC Penney column incited from irritable folks all across the Internet – and the Internet is, as Wilson, not terribly shy in making its opinions felt – show that she broke the first commandment of writing, or at least its Internet-age corollary:

On the Internet, you can’t control who your audience is.

The NYT’s response to the bleepstorm surrounding her column doesn’t offer much help or solace to the writer seeking to attain his or her voice. In a piece written by Clark Hoyt on Aug. 22, NYT’s Executive Editor Bill Keller offers this advice:

The key, I guess, is to imagine that you are writing for an audience with a broad range of views and experiences, and to write with respect for them.

That is, on the surface, great advice. Until you try to apply it. Whose experiences and views do you choose, among this audience with a broad spectrum of them? The broader one attempts to write, the more quiet the voice becomes. Wilson might have avoided the JC Penney bleepstorm by writing broadly, but at the expense of her style.

Keller offers better advice further on in Hoyt’s piece:

Dismissing a point of view “with a contemptuous sneer is not only bad manners, it’s bad journalism.”
Boy do I know that feeling. Back in my newspaper column-writing days, I incited the wrath and truncheons of a segment of my audience by suggesting Mormon fast and testimony meetings would be better if, in Vaudevillian style, those whose testimonies went on too long or crossed bounds for weepage, self-righteousness and other offenses were dragged from the podium with a big hook. I, as a Mormon, thought it was funny. My non-Mormon editors saw no trouble with it. It was printed.


It’s been at least seven years since that column was printed. Four years since I left journalism completely. And I still hear people talking about that “moron at the paper who doesn’t understand what testimony meeting is all about.”

So, to use a cliché, I feel Wilson’s pain.

Hoyt reports this:

[Wilson] said it was “kind of provincial of me” not to realize how big The Times was and how her audience would expand when she reviewed a store like Penney’s She said she also thought she hit a raw nerve with people already disposed to think of The Times as disconnected and unsympathetic. “It was dumb on my part not to see this coming,” she said.

You and me both, sister. That little column I wrote and thought was so funny didn’t do much to help the image of my paper, already perceived as disconnected and unsympathetic to the majority LDS population in its service area.

Does that mean I wouldn’t write what I wrote again? No. Would I understand if a paper decided not to publish it, relegating it instead to the relative obscurity of Mr. Fweem’s Blog? You bet your boots I would. But that doesn’t mean I’d like it. But it would mean that, like Wilson, I’m growing to understand the power of the first commandment of writing.


carl g said...

This author obviously trades on her barbed wit for article sales, so she got what she deserved. But you have to love the comment from Hoyt, "Wilson’s editors should have saved her, themselves and the paper from the reaction they got from readers, who concluded that the humor was at their expense, not for their benefit."

Yes, that's what it means to be an editor. You get no credit for what goes right and all the blame for what goes wrong. I hate being an editor.

Mister Fweem said...

Yup. None of the credit but all of the blame. You should see what happens here if DOE notices a typo . . .

Of course, a typo led to a multi-million dollar lawsuit between DOE and the state that was not settled in DOE's favor, so they have reason to nitpick.