Monday, November 17, 2008

Online comments, part two

After my recent blog about the voices that online comments bring to our Web site, I have an addendum: This phenomenon takes some getting used to.
Last Friday, I was updating our Web site in the absence of our online editor and I posted the story about the woman being hit by the train, then updated it when we learned that she had died of her injuries, then updated it again when police told us her identity.
In the meantime, Web cruisers were commenting on the story at a rate of two to three comments for every line of news. The comments portion took on a life of its own with readers challenging each other on their education, vocabulary and how they spend their time. The tragedy of the woman's death was lost in the war of words.
I have said before that I don't understand how people can have entire relationships based on text messages or what motivates others on the Web to have so much to say about things that have nothing to do with their lives. You could say some people just like to hear themselves talk, but no one is talking -- just speed-typing and sending.
During the same afternoon that I was dealing with the story of the train tragedy, I was getting "comment abuse" reports from a story also posted on our Web site about a rape trial in which the suspect was acquitted. The jury's ruling was not enough for readers, apparently, as they weighed in on the victim, the suspect and everything about the court case. As the comments became increasingly personal and bordered on hate, I decided to exercise the option to block all story comments. And, that upset some people who voiced their concern that they were being "censored."
This is new territory for some of us, and I will never be completely comfortable with free-wheeling anonymous comments on any topic. But on sensitive topics -- criminal cases, sexual abuse, domestic assault, accidental deaths -- I think the bar of caution needs to be raised higher and restrictions enacted.
The comments on our Web site tell stories all their own, and they bring a new dimension to storytelling. But, it's a dimension that can easily get out of control.
We will be watching.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A new wave of Sound Off

I have previously owned up to the fact that I opposed for many years adding a Sound Off column to the paper before I was overruled and then became a fan. Like raising an energetic child, Sound Off is high maintenance but can be immensely rewarding in an unexpected instant with one fresh comment or delightful observation.
I have recently also become a fan of another anonymous form of opinion that I previously objected to -- comments posted on our Web site to stories and opinions.
Our previous Web site platform required comments to be approved before posting. This slowed the process and forced the reader of a story to wait a day or so before seeing what others had to say. In our new and approved Web site unveiled a few weeks ago, comments post immediately. There are filters to keep out profanity, but if someone wants to criticize his neighbor, there's nothing to stop it until we catch it and remove it from the site.
I was unsure about this freedom to comment anonymously without control, but I was assured that it provides a free and open forum for people, and they react with energy and enthusiasm.
Today's 34 comments to a story about a bus stop in Limerick have proven the Web gurus right and me wrong.
Granted, I get three to four "Abuse" reports in my email every other day or so, but we take care of the offensive comments by immediately removing them.
This is the interactive portion of the Internet that has become so popular, and in the case of commenting on local stories at, it is the best of both worlds -- marrying a discussion by citizens with community news reported by a credible newspaper.
I have an editor's directive here in the newsroom that reporters have heard often: I want local voices in stories. I want to hear the words of local people on issues and events that are important to their lives; I want to see their faces in photographs, revealing the diversity in opinion and background of the people to whom we write our newspaper. The Web site comments give me that diversity and those voices right from their own mouths, er, laptops.
We hear the perspective of a teen-ager who waits at the bus stop, parents who drop their kids off there, other parents who recall longer waits and walks when they went to school, and many observers with hard-headed opinions about children, parents, schools, buses, sidewalks and the world in general.
The comments are enlightening and fun.
On a more serious note, the comments last week reacting to the death of a young mother at the hands of her estranged husband painted a poignant portrait of the tragedy of domestic violence. The comments taken together told a story of Amy Camacho-Marchionne, as her family and friends would like her remembered. The comments provided so much insight into the victim's life that we printed them in The Sunday Mercury alongside a followup story to Amy's murder.
As a writer and editor, the comments on our Web site also help me understand how readers view our reporting. I especially appreciate the reactions, both pro and con, to the Opinion editorials I write.
Your comments are delightful reading.
And, like with Sound Off, I'm hooked.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Hold the presses: We've got a World Series and an election to cover

Phillies fans, campaign volunteers and newspaper editors shared a week to be remembered last week -- a seven-day adrenaline rush through sleep deprivation (late games on TV), endorsement editorials (down to the wire), and planning/revising/finalizing celebration front pages.

The antics of the weather and the dramatic play on the field made headline writers out of all of us.
"The Chase is On,"
"Reign Delay,"
"Lumber Party,"
"Swat Team,"
"Loud and Proud,"
"Parade of Champions,"
and "Phinally --
World expletive-deleted Champs."
Creativity was at full tilt throughout the week, as we pulled all the stops on full-color poster front pages, wrapping World Series coverage around the regular newspaper, and juggling deadlines and ad copy at midnight more than once to get the most out in front of readers in timely fashion.
For the first time that I can remember in 30-plus years at The Mercury, we cranked up the press a second time in the same cycle to print more copies. An extra 2,500 copies came off the press Thursday morning to be snatched off store shelves and out of honor boxes as quickly as the first run.
I overheard conversations among 20-somethings at Coventry Mall lamenting that they couldn't find a paper to buy anywhere on Thursday morning.
When the Phillies took the field to celebrate Wednesday night, fans were holding up bulldog copies of Philadelphia newspapers to banner the news "WE WIN!" in all its glory. Newspapers were selling out at train stations, local newsstands, and convenience stores as fast as the World Series locker room shirts at sporting good stores.

Everyone wanted a souvenir, a collectible, something to hold in their hand, save in the attic and show the next generation. The Internet just doesn't cut it at times like this.
But the Phillies were not the only news story in town. With less than a week remaining before the Presidential Election, we were also faced with getting candidate endorsements written and published during the week for the Congressional and state legislative races in the area.
Many newspapers have shunned political endorsements as an unnecessary exercise in opinions, but we believe that they are even more important, not less, in this age of negative televised campaigning and roadside sign clutter. We believe that print newspapers offer a seasoned perspective that can not be replaced by electronic media. We believe that we own a trust in our local community that holds sway over the strident voices on the air waves.
So, even while mapping out our World Series' specials, we were discussing and crafting our picks in area congressional and legislative races. I also wrote an endorsement last week of Sen. Barack Obama for President, a choice met with some dissension among both employeees and readers of this newspaper. But, it is an opinion, nothing more or less, and we believe strongly that we owe you, our readers, the honesty of our choices while we urge you to make yours.
Last week got a little crazy, but in sports and elections is where print media excels. Baseball and politics are played and celebrated in words and pictures, and that's what we do best. Last week presented a challenge to keep things straight and avoid confusing headlines and slogans. (The Champs We Need?)
The staff of this newspaper did an outstanding job in capturing for our readers the thrill of the Phillies' win. And, now we have an election to cover for you.
Some may say newspapers are a dying breed, but during weeks like last, I see the importance we hold in daily life.
Today is Election Day. Last week the Phillies won the World Series.
Be informed. Celebrate.
Buy a newspaper.

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Manic Monday

Manic Monday was the lead headline in today's paper, and my day is bringing that prediction to reality.
220 messages in my email inbox this morning. Four were relevant and directed to me. The other 216 were blast emails -- 205 were election related. I stopped counting, but I believe at least 175 predicted that Obama will bankrupt the coal industry. Another 25 or so were press logistics for campaign events in New Mexico, Nevada, Iowa and Florida. The theme today is overwhelmingly pro-McCain-Palin, as were the robo-calls to my house over the weekend.
Desperation is not a pretty thing.