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.

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