From Commenter to Contributor

On some blogs, taking the comment section seriously can mean hiring people from it

During a string of “boring, terrible” office jobs, Gabriel Delahaye started to regularly comment on Gawker’s articles. He wasn’t just doing this for fun. He had every intention of getting himself noticed: e-mailing tips to the editors and just making himself “a general nuisance.” He wanted to be a writer, and while he had a blog, he was trying to develop a presence on Gawker’s site. “It seemed like the only access point to that industry,” says Delahaye. “I didn’t understand how else to do it, so that was the route I took.”

It worked. After writing for his own site for three years, and commenting a lot, a friend of Delahaye was having lunch with one of the editors of Gawker. She was saying how she was going on vacation, and didn’t know who would fill in while she was gone. Since frequent commenter Delahaye was already on their radar, his friend brought up his name, and they had him do the fill-in gig. Now the senior editor for Videogum, a blog that is owned by Buzz Media, his commenting career has come full circle: he recently hired a few of Videogum’s more regular commenters to be guest editors while he went on vacation.

As the principal writer for the site, Delahaye had developed a following amongst his readers, and finding a writer from within the commenting community was a way to “keep people feeling positive about the site for the week that it was different.” He says that the people who post on Videogum are very supportive of each other, and seeing one of their fellow commenters move on to writing content makes them welcome the newbie to the job. “They cheer each other on,” says Delahaye.

When a site takes its comment section seriously, treating it as an integral part of the site rather than a nuisance, a site can stand to gain a lot—and not just in traffic numbers. Some sites regularly find contributors from the comment section, hiring them and even promoting them. A well written and informative comment can serve as proof of a person’s interest in a site and its content—a sort of audition, allowing a person to try out their ideas on other people. And for employers, particularly ones in a blog setting, mining the comments for possible hires is a way to find someone whose writing voice matches that of the site.

Left-leaning political blog Daily Kos embraces this idea fully, hiring almost exclusively from its comments section. Susan Gardner, the executive editor of the site, had been an editor of a community newspaper in her twenties, but took fifteen years off to raise her children. Once she had some more time, she started reading the site regularly, ultimately signing up to comment. She was soon writing what Daily Kos calls “Diaries,” which is a longer type of blog entry that lines the right hand side of the page, an option available to any commenter after a week. Soon her diary entries were being featured on the front page, and eventually she was chosen for a fellowship. She moved up from there, going from full time contributor to executive editor. “I was jazzed,” says Gardner. “To get paid to do what you do in your spare time is wonderful.” And while many people who go to Daily Kos realize that some people do get hired, for many contributors, it’s mostly about impressing the people who interact there frequently. “The bigger issue is reputational within the community,” says Gardner.

Charlie Harper had quite a reputation as an anonymous poster on Peach Pundit, a politically conservative blog, after the real estate bubble burst and he lost his job. He had a lot of free time, found a passion in writing about Georgia state politics, and eventually gained enough of a following to be moved up to being a front page contributor. He is now the editor-in-chief of the site, though this is not a paid position (Peach Pundit has no revenue model at this time). But over the years he had developed a sense of ownership of and engagement with the site, eventually outing himself in a post and admitting that he wasn’t the political insider he had been alluding to be. He apologized to those who were disappointed and felt that they “were misled into thinking I was ‘somebody.’”

Richard Lawson was becoming well known in the Gawker community under his pseudonym LOLcait, but his secret was that he actually was an insider; his job was in ad sales for Gawker Media. He started posting because he felt intimidated by the comments section. “I just wanted to prove to myself that I could participate in this thing,” says Lawson. “Then I kind of became addicted to it.”

Lawson started worrying that his real identity would be discovered, as much of his commenting was done while at work. So he e-mailed a Gawker editor, and eventually was asked by the big boss, Nick Denton, if he would like to write, transitioning out of ad sales and joining the editorial department full time.

Ryan Tate was also offered a writing job with Gawker, after mocking, of all things, a job posting on Gawker looking for writers. “We’d offer you a big salary but then you won’t work hard, or well. You lazy, incompetent chimpanzee,” reads part of his post. Tate, who had been writing about real estate for the San Francisco Business Times, was getting irritated with his job and spending increasing amounts of time on a few of the Gawker sites, with varying degrees of “frustration and snarkiness” due to what he felt was a strain on his creativity from his then-position. “I just felt like playing and expressing myself creatively,” says Tate. “And here’s this place where I can try out these ideas, or writing in this style.”

Nick Denton, the founder and owner of Gawker Media, wrote over Gmail chat that finding and hiring good writers was difficult. “It was much safer to look for talent online - and where better than to tap the best of the commenters,” he wrote. Denton mentioned Richard Lawson as a way of dealing with a “commenter rebellion” that took place after a well-liked Gawker editor left the site. Denton also mentioned Ryan Tate’s criticism of the job post, writing that it was done “so viciously and so skillfully that I wanted him on my team.”

Denton says that Gawker’s most recent change to the commenting section is a design change, with a thread and the comments being displayed in the same width and in the same font as the body of the article. “We want to treat the best of the comments with the typographic respect that we’d give to an article produced by one of our writers,” he wrote.

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , ,