Last week, a journalist named James Wilkerson stumbled on a small but silly news story in the online archives of the Sioux City Journal. The December 2006 story, full of purple prose and unchecked anticipation, breathlessly reported on the opening of the town’s first Olive Garden.
“A martini is not a martini without an olive,” the piece, by John Quinlan, begins. “That, at least, is the thinking of a true connoisseur. And to Siouxland residents, many of whom consider themselves connoisseurs of fine food, a city is not a city without an Olive Garden. So as of Monday, Sioux City becomes a real city.” From there, readers learned about the manager’s marital status (he’s single, ladies), the expansive parking lot, and the menu’s three different soups.
“The Most Onion-like real news story of all time has been found,” Gawker claimed, and in doing so sent more than 21,000 readers to the Journal’s Web site to see for themselves. (Some visitors came from subsequent links on The Huffington Post and other sites.) Gawker readers soon took over the comments, berating Quinlan for his writing style and belittling Sioux City residents for their pedestrian tastes. (Samples include: “Please stick a fork in my eye so I never have to reead [sic] something like this again [sic];” “This is sad. It explains a lot about the midwest, though. No taste, no flavor, and an obesity epidemic.”)
The flurry of activity temporarily shut down the article’s comment section (“We didn’t pull them,” says Thomas Richie, the Journal’s new media director, who hopes to resurrect the comments soon. “We like comments!”), and left the newspaper wondering how to capitalize on the sudden success—though the site gets around 105,000 page views per day, this was the most-read story of the month.
We called Quinlan for his reaction to the fracas, and while he was happy to chat, he was a bit disappointed. “I always thought the Columbia Journalism Review would call me after I won a Pulitzer,” he said.
CJR: When did it come to your attention that this two-year-old story was becoming a sensation?
John Quinlan: It was Wednesday. I got an email from a reporter at a California paper, The OC Register. He wanted to say what a great story it was. I think he was serious, but it was hard to tell. He tipped me off about it. I saw on our Web site we had twenty new comments. Originally, when the story ran, we only had two.
CJR: Did you even know what story he was talking about?
JQ: I did, but when he emailed, I thought, “Is this a joke?” I sent a sarcastic comment back, he replied and said it’s real he mentioned the blog where he read it. I guess it’s been bouncing around the Internet for a while now.
CJR: You weren’t even supposed to write that story, correct?
JQ: This was supposed to be a big Sunday business front-page feature. They’d been wanting an Olive Garden for years. They’ve done surveys over the years—what restaurants would you like to see in Sioux City? For twenty years, the Olive Garden was at the top of the list. I didn’t have a beat. I was on the copy desk for fifteen years and was just getting back into writing. I had been doing some faith-based and medical stories. The business editor had some kind of problem that day, so I filled in and did the story. It was a boring story, but people were expecting something kind of big, because to them it was a big event. I wanted to have a little fun with the story.
CJR: What did you think about the response on the Web? It seemed a little mean spirited to me.
JQ: That kind of flummoxes me. You look at any story that goes up on the web and people who respond to it either hate it or love it. A lot of the criticism was people saying, well why are you making such a big deal about it? It’s just an Olive Garden. I’ve been there three times in the past two years—it’s a nice place and the food is good. It’s not the greatest food in the world. But it was a big deal when it first opened. They were camping outside for the first two months—you couldn’t get in the door.
CJR: If you could have picked any story of yours to take off like this on the Web, which would it be—or what would you direct people to read now that they’ve read this?
JQ: The first things I did when I came off the copy desk, a six part series on the Jewish community in the area. It won some awards and it’s the best, I think, I’ve done since then. The biggest story I ever worked on was the crash of [United Airlines Flight] 232 in 1989. The plane crashed at the airport and it was amazing anyone survived. It was called the Miracle in the Cornfields. It was a huge story. It had a TV movie made after it with Charlton Heston. I figured I wasn’t going to get a story that big in a while.
CJR: What are your colleagues’ reactions to the story?
JQ: They think it’s funny. Especially because it’s a two-year-old story. They ask, why is it being picked up now? A lot of people don’t realize it, but the story is two years old. The one guy who’s really excited is our IT guy. By Friday we had 20,000 people who read it, and that boosted our traffic, so he was really happy.
CJR: Do you think it’s funny?
JQ: I do. I don’t take criticisms personal. It’s just people commenting on a story that could be a story inThe Onion because it was taking something so seriously … I couldn’t make fun of it as a reporter, but I could try to have a little fun with it.