The much-lauded News & Record Town Square project is barely out of the gate, and already one of its neighborhoods is losing property value.
The newspaper's purpose, as I understand it, is to try and do a New Thing. Rather than compete with the web for news-hungry eyeballs, the News & Record wants to be the web. They seek to transform the paper and its website into, as Editor John Robinson put it, "a trusted place where people can get the news, share information, talk to each other and us, and engage in building community."
Our idea is to make the paper and Web site a true marketplace of information and ideas, not just ours, not just community leaders, but yours, too. That means that we need to include many voices and take our lead from readers.
This new mode of interactive publishing is ambitious and groundbreaking. The N&R deserves, and has garnered, accolades for rethinking the mission of newspapers in the 21st century. By being proactive, the paper has inserted Greensboro into the national discussion about the future of journalism, publishing, blogging, and the mainstream media.
But this being an experiment, there are variables. There are questions. There are challenges, both technical and philosophical. What happens when you let readers become writers? How do facts get vetted? Who sets the tone? What if citizen journalists prove to be lousy writers, unethical reporters, and repel, rather than attract, your readership and thus, your advertisers?
I have no answers, but like so many who have logged on to the News & Record's pages in recent weeks, I have a comment.
On February 13th, Robinson introduced the new Letters to the Editors page, with online commenting enabled. He was decidedly optimistic:
If you believe that open discussion builds learning and understanding, then this is the place to be.
Just four days later, on February 17th, Editorial Page Editor Allen Johnson was also moved to post about the Letters to the Editor page. Rather calling for participation, though, he was putting out a plea for civility. Lamenting a thread that "has taken a decided twist toward meanness", Johnson asked readers to stop the name-calling in the Letters comments, lest the page become "a cyberversion of insulting one another's mamas."
A quick review of today's Letters, and it's obvious that some still haven't gotten the message. There were, apparently, people in Greensboro with no one to talk to. Kicked out of their favorite bars, ostracized by coworkers, avoided by their neighbors, they needed somewhere to vent their anger and frustration. They needed to chew some butt.
Just when they thought it was hopeless, that they would be talking to their dogs forever, along came the News & Record's Town Square. Now, not only do they get to talk; we are all forced to listen -- in the web sense, of course. This means that in order to extract the content from our one and only daily newspaper site, we must scroll through inordinate quantities of antagonistic tripe.
Hiding behind pseudonyms, these fomenter commenters derive glee and it would seem catharsis by scattering slanderous birdshot at the Letters blog. The topic doesn't matter; they just want a fight, a chance to list all the things and people they hate, and how much, while they have the floor.
How to stop them? I have no idea. Banning anonymous comments on the web seems impossible, as fake names and email addresses are an easy trick.
But one thing is clear. With them in the room, we're not really talking to each other. We're not "building learning and understanding." It's a no-rules, drunken street brawl. It gets everyone's adrenaline pumping, and the loudest and meanest have the last word. Taken to its most extreme, it can even damage the community and our national conversation by breeding mistrust. I might have to start worrying, for example, that the person in line behind me at the grocery store is one of the mean, rampaging hardliners whose unkind words are lodged in my cerebrum for good.
That's no public service. And the light it casts on Greensboro is not a soft, flattering one either.
I don't want to discount the many commenters who do contribute to the discussion at the N&R's Letters pages. They also have something to say, and express it without questioning the parentage, intellect, or character of other commenters. Some of these names I know; others I don't, and that gives me hope.
When I go to a general admission concert, I don't expect to see only people with agendas, criminal records, and states of sobriety similar to mine. I realize that "open" means open, and "public" means public. Furthermore I don't want to quash any particular point of view.
But the damaging fact remains that the hyperbolic rhetoric and antagonism of the Town Square sometimes makes me want to stay home. So far this is only a problem for me. If people start staying away in droves, then I suppose it will be a problem for the News & Record to solve.
I wish I knew how to help them. I'm just another citizen journalist, looking to tell my story.
So there it is: my comment. And here is my question: Is all this really necessary?