I’m guessing that nine times out of 10 if someone gets a bad orange at the grocery store that makes their stomach turn or keeps them up at night because it didn’t agree with them, they don’t write a letter to the local produce market manager or the company that hired the minimum wage workers to pick the orange.
They just move on.
It’s not like that in the newspaper business and that’s part of the reason being a journalist is one of the most unique — and at times most frustrating — occupations there are.
First, it’s a job that never really ends. It’s not nine to five because there is no clock for news — it happens when it happens and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
Second, it’s an industry where those who consume the product that is created — in this case by writers, reporters, editors and photographers — often feel the need to interact with them after consumption.
Some newspaper readers believe they have an obligation to do it and in theory they do.
Since the first printing press churned out the first fish wrap, newspapers have encouraged that interaction through various means like letters to the editor or, in the case of the former Mesabi Daily News, Orchids and Onions and today’s softer, more friendly version — Kudos.
I’m going to assume (dangerous, I know) that this relationship is some sort of system of checks and balances. If newspaper men and women are society’s watchdogs, then the readers and subscribers must be the people holding the leashes.
It makes sense if the system works right.
Lately, it doesn’t. For example, national media has been showing its bias for years and instead of calling it out, the consumers have basically decided it’s easier to just pick a side.
Bill watches CNN. Buffy watches Fox News. And never should the two come together.
The billionaire puppeteers who pull the strings of the major cable news outlets and national newspapers love it. For them it isn’t about what’s fair and balanced, it is first and foremost about ratings and sales, and in turn, money.
Locally, at least to this point, it’s not quite that bad.
Sales at local newspapers are important, but community journalism and quality journalists still exist because it’s not so much about pushing controversial agendas or brainwashing the sheep. It’s still mostly about fair news stories that highlight the highs and lows and the in-betweens of any given area or region and a certain balance of left and right opinions on the Op-Ed pages.
It’s also the last bastion of reader interaction and while traditionally that has often led to constructive criticism and spirited conversation that eventually improves the product and the relationship. Today, it's mostly extreme responses motivated by emotion.
Social media and email make it much too easy for people to sound off instantly at the slightest trigger and in most cases, nothing positive comes from it. In fact, angry emails filled with pointed barbs and personal attacks usually have quite the opposite effect.
It drives us apart.
When I receive an emotionally charged piece of hate mail filled with sentences like this, “It was truly the worst piece of writing I’ve ever read,” I immediately suppress all those pesky feelings that would otherwise rise up within my conscious and potentially influence me to reconsider my point of view.
Most of the time I find myself completely disregarding everything the reader has written. I shut down and the end result is the letter writer didn’t ruin my day as they had hoped.
However, I am only human and sometimes they hit a nerve. I get a little agitated and respond to certain critics with sarcasm meant to belittle the opinion of the writer that didn’t agree with my opinion. It’s basically the same response I got but turned around on them in an attempt to ruin their day.
Admittedly, nothing good comes of it, but now and then I feel justified by that type of behavior, particular when I’m proven right after being called out on something in a rude way.
For example, the above-mentioned reference about my terrible writing was in response to a recent column about my fears of sending my daughter to college in the Twin Cities because of the increase in violence there over the past few months.
The letter writer, a University of Minnesota student born and raised in the metro area, felt I was wrong and called the column “humorously inaccurate.” Ironically, an hour after the email was written, and I had read it, I saw an alert Tweet from a service that posts real-time crime information from around the Twin Cities that police were responding to an armed robbery on the 300 block of 14th Avenue SE in Minneapolis.
Google maps tells me that is in DinkyTown right across University Avenue from the U of M main campus.
Still, despite my gloating, that type of reaction by a reader or myself is counterproductive and I know that and try to remember it when besieged by angry personal attacks in my inbox.
The good news is more times than not when someone calls me out on something I’ve written — some opinion that I’ve offered that doesn’t fit with the way they view the same subject — they do it in a well thought out email that is respectful and constructive.
That’s when I take the time to reply and start a positive dialogue.
It’s in those moments where lessons are learned that will hopefully make for a more cordial exchange in the future between writer and reader.
We can disagree and still be civil to one another.