Dear Chron: How Not to Write a Mean-Spirited Article

This Houston Chronicle slideshow from back in January was passed around quite a bit yesterday across Houston social media -- funny how that delayed reaction happens sometimes, isn't it?

Full disclosure: I was one of the people passing it around, but I wasn't the first to post it by far. The wave of indignation had already begun by the time my eyes landed on it.

The Chronicle took a lot of flak over this slideshow, primarily for the perceived cruelty of attacking people just struggling to make a living. It was well-deserved, but not for that reason alone. There were mistakes made at every step of whatever process led to publishing this piece. Here, then, is some advice for our friends at the Chron, to help them improve their future efforts.

Humor is important. People will forgive you for a lot if you make them laugh. Anyone who ever broke out their choicest dirty limerick while serving divorce papers knows this. If whoever pieced this together had simply taken the time to put in some humorous observations on each entry, it might have been worth reading. At the very least, people would have recognized that it was an attempt at humor and wouldn't have cared enough to object. This actually happened on the original article referred to in the Chron's slideshow, a piece on AskMen.

Admittedly, the "humorous" observations are pretty weak -- several of them are along the tired lines of "If you find yourself working at _______, then something has gone seriously wrong with your life!" You can almost hear the canned laugh track, can't you?

But the writer is at least trying, and people seemed to have appreciated this fact enough not to leave angry comments. This stands in stark contrast to the Chron article, where the commentary wasn't humorous at all. And here's the thing: said commentary was, in fact, copied straight from the AskMen article and lazily pasted onto each entry, but the Chron didn't even bother to use any of the original article's (marginally) humorous comments. That mistake made the "new" slideshow read like a straight hit piece, and that understandably infuriated people. It's a very bad idea to attack the underdog without either a truckload of humor, a very unique perspective, or an audience full of Ayn Rand devotees.

Let's go back to perspective. It's not just the thing that makes everything I draw look like it was done by a trained bear with a crayon attached to a hedge trimmer. What if someone at the Chronicle had actually bothered to go out and talk to a few people who work in the jobs listed? Asked a few simple questions like "What's the worst part of your job?" or "What's the craziest thing you've ever seen?" or "What's the most embarrassed you've ever been of your job?" or "What's the most drugs you've ever gotten away with doing while at work?" Now you've gone from simply parroting a piece published on another website to offering fresh insight on it. Sounds way more interesting, right?

What had been nothing more than a snarky list of shitty jobs could have turned into a sympathetic look at the things people deal with while they work in non-glamorous but necessary industries. That kind of thing brings in the hits, especially from the people who work in those industries. Instead, the Chron comes across as supporting the idea that the people working these jobs are right to be embarrassed of them. Considering everyone except the most insulated old-money trust fund twats tends to be sympathetic towards the very bottom rung of the working class, that's a huge problem.

I know what some of you, particularly the soulless Nazgul in the public relations field, are thinking: "But imagine the traffic they got!" Indeed, half of the internet has become articles, comments, videos, and memes designed to be inflammatory and get people talking. Virtually no one is above this, and for good reason: pissed-off people must pass around the offending article in order to enlist others in their indignation. Traffic galore! So the Chron's piece undoubtedly picked up a lot of page views from getting passed around all day yesterday.

This isn't a good thing in and of itself, however. When you write a controversial piece, you're essentially engaging in viral marketing, and for viral marketing to work, there has to be some kind of substance that makes people want to return to the website or explore other pages. It has to be funny or novel or interesting or at least divisive -- meaning some people will actually want to defend it. If, for example, the article had been humorous, there would likely have been people in the comments section proclaiming "Oh, lighten up, I thought it was hilarious! None of you butthurt crybabies can take a joke!" There are plenty of people in the comments bashing the slideshow itself, but nobody is arguing with each other or really engaging beyond the initial reading. As with the city of Dallas, there is plenty to attack, but nothing to defend.

Things like this chip away at a publication's reputation. You don't want someone seeing a link to your website and immediately thinking "waste of time." Humor, new knowledge, emotional engagement, any of these associations will make people return to a website. Apathy, not so much. For the sake of a little bit of short term traffic, you could wind up costing yourself readers in the long run. In other words: if you're going to troll, troll properly.

In the end, it was not the mean-spiritedness but the laziness of the piece that was the most galling. All of the problems with the Chron's slideshow could have been solved with just a bare minimum of effort, the kind any respectable journalist would put into their articles. Not that this writer is a respectable journalist, but I've read about them.

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