Going viral like Marilyn Hagerty

If you haven’t heard of Marilyn Hagerty, you must be living under a rock.

Marilyn Hagerty. Photo from gfherald.com

The 85-year-old columnist for the Grand Forks Herald (owned by Forum Communications Co., the same company that owns the West Central Tribune) has been making headlines this past week for her sincere, earnest review of the town’s new Olive Garden.

“At length, I asked my server what she would recommend. She suggested chicken Alfredo, and I went with that. Instead of the raspberry lemonade she suggested, I drank water,” she wrote in her review.

“All in all, [Olive Garden] is the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks. It attracts visitors from out of town as well as people who live here.”

After it was published in the GFH, several outlets picked it up, including Gawker. In a matter of hours, it went viral on the Internet, being shared on Facebook 21,000 times, tweeted 14,000 times and receiving, to date, nearly 700,000 views on gfherald.com.

Marilyn's in the Big Apple! Photo from marilynhagerty.areavoices.com

At first, people made fun of her, saying that the Olive Garden didn’t merit a review. Some didn’t even know if she was being serious. But now, a week later, she’s so famous that Jane Lynch interviewed her Monday night on “Piers Morgan Tonight,” she’s in NYC doing more restaurant reviews, and there are talks of her making an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

Overnight, she became “America’s newest media darling.” Now, Marilyn Hagerty – who didn’t even know what it meant to “go viral” until her son explained it to her – has her own blog, an e-book and a T-shirt featuring her now-famous quote: “I’ve been a lot of other things, but never viral!”

In the West Central Tribune newsroom, we’ve all been keeping up with Marilyn’s latest adventure or interview. Personally, I’m rooting for her all the way (I happen to love Olive Garden and would be over-the-moon ecstatic to see one come to Willmar).

But Marilyn’s overnight celebrity status also serves a powerful lesson: In this day and age, journalists have the potential to be read by an audience well beyond their immediate area. At the West Central Tribune, what we write isn’t necessarily read only by people in this community (although I’m sure that’s the majority of our audience). Anyone, anywhere can go viral – even a “retired” journalist out in the Middle of Nowhere, North Dakota. Certainly it could happen in Willmar, Minn.

On Monday, an article of mine ran about a curling wedding that took place this weekend. While it didn’t come anywhere close to going viral, it did garner nearly 3,200 page views on wctrib.com. Around 30 people tweeted the article, several people linked to it on Facebook, and it was our most read story of the day. It was even picked up on the AP wire, meaning other papers that subscribe to the AP could use the story on their websites (and yes, I did a search, and a few actually did use it, which was pretty cool).

The curling wedding even made the USA Today!

UPDATE MARCH 14, 2:15 P.M.: I just learned that Willmar’s curling wedding made the USA Today! It was in the “Across the USA: News from every state” section on page 7A. I know it was more because of the originality of the wedding than my actual story, but still, that is pretty neat.

It is a great feeling to know that other people read what you work so hard to write. After all, journalists write to be read. But for me, it’s also a little scary to think about one of my articles having the potential to go viral like Marilyn Hagerty’s. She obviously has a thick enough skin to not let the critics get to her. I’m not sure that, if put in the same situation, I would have the same attitude.

As a young journalist, I also feel pressure trying to find my way in an industry that allows for your words to reach many people and have an immediate, recognizable impact on a community. I’m very cognizant of the fact that what I write goes online for anyone and everyone to read.

You have to be careful. A few weeks ago, a young editor for ESPN wrote a racist headline in reference to NBA player Jeremy Lin. The headline only stayed on ESPN’s website for about 30 minutes – from 2:30 to 3:05 a.m. – before it was taken down, but it was too late. The headline went viral, and the young editor, who said that he simply didn’t know it was a racial slur, was fired.

In writing about the ESPN incident, I think Alex Johnson, an experienced journalist with MSNBC, makes an excellent point about young journalists:

“The trope is that it’s the old-timers like me who are scared of today’s technology. But I have less to be scared of than do the far smarter young writers and editors I work with…I got to learn the craft of journalism during an age when a single mistake — even a bad one — wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of my career…all of today’s rising young journalists have every right to be petrified.”

Yeah, that’s pressure. And it makes me a little nervous to think about.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t lie in bed at night in a cold sweat, mentally going over everything I did that day to make sure I didn’t make a mistake. I know that mistakes happen. Journalists are human (although we try our absolute hardest to write mistake-free articles and have an editing process for this very reason). I just hope that A) I never make a mistake that would jeopardize my integrity as a journalist, and B) I never make a mistake that causes my name to go viral.

It is much better to go viral the Marilyn Hagerty way: For being a nice person who happens to be from a small town, where a new Olive Garden is big news.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go review the new Qdoba in Willmar. Instead of a soda, I will drink water. Marilyn taught me that.

Have you been following the Marilyn Mania? What do you think of going viral? Most importantly, what are your thoughts on Olive Garden? Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Ashley White, community content coordinator