Friday, July 23, 2010

Saving Pottstown

Our followers at SavePottstown have suggested we eliminate commenting on our website to avoid a potential for intimidation. We certainly agree with the premise that commenting should never be a forum for intimidation, and we struggle as many news sites are these days with this dilemma.
The Washington Post ombudsman wrote recently about commenting categories being considered for their website. The article noted that reporters were encountering people reluctant to be quoted in website articles for fear of the personal attacks that get rolling in the free-for-all of anonymous website commenting.
The Reading Eagle has chosen to eliminate all commenting on their website, and certainly, that would be easier for us to do than monitoring the process with pre-approval, abuse reports, complaint reviews and reader concerns.
However, that route eliminates the potential for benefit from commenting.
Pointing again to the Owen J. Roberts saga and hundred of comments those stories generated last summer, I believe that some people were spurred to become more involved in school decisions as a result of that dialogue.
Some of it was difficult to bear, to be sure, but within that heated community debate grew seeds of earnest involvement that benefited the school community in the end.
As part of our digital-first initiatives here, we now look to comments for ways to improve our reporting. And it happens. By posting stories as they begin to develop, we - and readers - benefit from commenters pointing us to an approach or a source of information we may not have considered. The end result is a better story.
Commenting at its best is a way for the reader to become involved in the writing; the dialogue in some cases becomes as insightful as the story itself, as I am sure the followers of the SavePottstown site would be the first to admit.
But there are problems, and there is a potential for harm in commenting. A news story today and a letter to the editor appearing this weekend in The Mercury voices that concern. The subject of the article and writers of the letter, Katy and David Jackson, were concerned that their home was recently vandalized in part because of comments made on our website.
Their words: "the increasingly angry point of view of this emboldened landlord has contributed to our uncertainty and a sense of vulnerability that we have not felt in our community until now."
While police say evidence points to the vandalism being random, that does not erase the larger concern that people may refrain from speaking out or acting upon community improvement because of bullies on our website or other online forums.
We don't want that to happen, and we are working to implement stronger and more specific guidelines for ourselves as website managers to avoid it. Our online editor Eileen Faust is also developing a process for those who challenge our commenting policy so that the debate is not going on on the website about "my comment" versus yours.
The goal is to continue commenting as a community forum, not as a dart board to lob sniping remarks at others.
The commenting debate has another downside of diverting attention from the more important issues being written about.
I wonder how many people following the name games and who-said-what-about-whom this week also followed Evan Brandt's insightful reporting on the Building One Pennsylvania summit -- a series of articles appearing every day since Tuesday in The Mercury and at
I wonder if those who accuse us of promoting negativity take note of the calls to action and reinforcement of involvement that we write as our Opinions, as opposed to the negative reactions about our opinions.
We're all on the same side in the effort to promote and rehabilitate Pottstown and to improve the quality of life throughout the region served by The Mercury. Tax reform, property values, quality of education, business development are causes we all embrace.
Imagine what could happen if everyone who has a comment turned their words into action.
Pottstown just might be saved.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The tangled web of online comments

Today I am being taken to task by anonymous bloggers at Save Pottstown for comments made on The Mercury website.
The blog draws a line from a comment made on a Pottstown Borough Council story at to reports of vandalism at the home of a local citizen and community activist and somehow ends up with a conclusion that "The Mercury promotes hate and violence" under my direction.
About the only thing known to be factual in that rant is that as editor, I have the responsibility for what we print online and in the paper -- a responsibility that those who know me understand I consider sacred.
This insinuation is just the latest in our continuing struggle with web commenting. About a year ago, we were among the first websites in our company to change to pre-approval of comments. At the time, online editor Eileen Faust wrote a front-page story about the decision, posted rules, and began vigorously enforcing them.
Other media websites have been reluctant to get into approving comments because it goes against the spontaneous, free and open environment of the web. But we believe that there is no justification for allowing hate and threats to poison the dialogue that we are trying to promote.
Last year's commenting on the Myra Forrest firing and Owen J. Roberts School Board attracted a lot of "trolls" from outside the area and inspired a volume of commenting on our website that went off in areas completely irrelevant to the local topic being discussed.
We know that some people comment on every story posted on a given day, whether they have any interest or relevant observation to make. It's just an opportunity to espouse opinions, some of which serve no purpose other than inciting anger or hate. The volume of troll postings and the obvious intention of inciting reaction with nastiness caused us to go to pre-approval.
But that creates its own set of problems. Comments are approved by a number of people here because it's a 24/7 chore -- we get complaints on comments not approved, complaints on comments that are approved, complaints that we're not fast enough in getting them approved, and complaints that we're too slow or too fast in taking down comments after someone reports abuse.
Some stories we don't even allow comments because they have the potential for so much nastiness, we can't keep up with it. When someone reports abuse of a comment that is already posted, we usually take it down (unless their reason is something silly) because if even one person is offended and expresses that to us, we believe we should take it down.
We are also receiving complaints about how we handle complaints about the approval process. We're working on more specific guidelines and creating a method for objecting when we take down or don't approve a comment.
We are not the only media company struggling with the work of engaging people without crossing the lines of libel and without promoting attitudes that we believe are detrimental to our readers.
Harry Dietz, the editor of The Reading Eagle, recently wrote a column announcing that the Eagle website would no longer permit commenting on stories. He said the decision was made after much discussion and many complaints.
In the past year since we started pre-approval of comments, other major media websites have instituted a similar practice. There are now full-time jobs being advertised for journalists to monitor commenting.
Why, some may ask, do we allow it to continue?
The web in the age of Google and Facebook is an environment that shuns control of information and promotes openness and sharing. At our website, we embrace that philosophy -- opening our newsgathering processes to the public, inviting input on everything from stories we're planning to spot news as it develops to the streets in your neighborhood that need to be fixed.
At its best, the web and the dialogue it invites is a better place than the staid media of the past. But monitoring the abusers who defend themselves as holding truth in their hands becomes increasingly difficult.
At, they've closed the door on web commenting. We're trying to keep it open with an eye on what's crossing the threshold. It's becoming more difficult every day.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Ben Franklin WHAT?

When asked in an online reader poll, "What did you think of the Ben Franklin Project?", 50 percent of those responding said "The WHAT project?"
I can't say I'm surprised. The Ben Franklin Project was a media experiment conducted by Journal Register Company, parent company of The Mercury to produce the July 4th edition using free Web-based tools. We also produced a separate website on that day using a free WordPress site.
The fact that the change went unnoticed by many of our readers points to the project's success. If we had failed to publish, that would have certainly caught everyone's attention.
But for some readers, who were following our buildup to Ben Franklin and who may have read the editorial or news stories about it last Sunday, we appreciate your interest in our changing media world.
"Pottstownguy" asked the following questions:
"Overall, how did the experiment go with the 4th issue? Did using all free on-line web-based tools make it easier or more difficult to get the paper out? Was there a cost savings using these methods? Did the community provide enough input in the process? Are you finding crowdsourcing an effective tool in the delivery of news for the Pottstown area? "
My answer:
"Using free Web-based tools for our production of the July 4th issue was successful because it challenged old habits and practices we automatically move toward rather than exploring new ways of doing things. It was not 'easier,' but it wasn't really more difficult either. The gain was not in money or time saved; it was in giving ourselves permission to experiment. We are moving very quickly in new directions of news delivery on more digital platforms, and we won't be able to make these transitions unless we embrace innovation.
"What this project did for us as a newspaper was give us courage. As for community input and crowdsourcing, we are finding people still look to us as a news gatherer and provider, not just a platform for sharing.
"The Mercury has always been close to its community -- love us or hate us, few people ignore us -- so crowdsourcing to us is a new name for what we do best, which is interact with our readers.
"Personally, I like the new ways of engaging readers that we are using these days, particularly with this July 4th edition. A reporter tells a bystander at the parade to email a photo to my desk, and I get it Saturday night and turn it around to a copy editor to get in the paper the next day. Pretty cool. Not every story works that way, but I think Pottstown's input enhanced our coverage of the July 4th-on-the-3rd festivities. Hope that answers your questions. You can email or call at or 610-970-4470. "
I suspect people noticed the number of photos sent by readers that we used on July 4, and I would wager the stories with readers' comments on road rage were pretty well read.
More important to me than recognizing the name of our project was the fact that several hundred people tuned in to our livestreaming of the parade and dozens sent us photos of how they were celebrating independence.
Doesn't matter what we call it; change to a new future is happening.