Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Goodbye, Lincoln Journal Star

Given the opportunity, people can be downright horrible. I know this, and so do you. Why it comes as such shocking information to newspaper editors, I can't say. Personally, I think they know it too. How strange it is then, when comment threads turn nasty, that the individuals charged with monitoring the human potential for awfulness feel the need to scold readers for behaving in exactly the manner they are expected long as it doesn't insult the reporters, editors, or local police. Otherwise, the gloves are off for just about any personal attack so long as it stays on the legal side of becoming libel. Why? Page views.

Each time an enraged commenter clicks back to read responses, they must go through the main article, then the comments. If you were trying to generate advertising revenue based on clicks, that becomes significant. In fact, simply by the phrasing of headlines, an editor can ensure numerous clicks for an article and comment thread. The best example I could find today was:
"Medicare Change Could Affect More Than Illegals"

Not, "Illegal Immigrants", or "Undocumented Workers", or even, "Economic Refugees", but "Illegals." An editor doesn't permit a story to go to print with that sort of charged terminology unless they are trying to elicit a specific response. In this case, it brought out the nativist crowd (shocking, I know) ready to spew their fantasies of a perfect world devoid of ethnic diversity. That headline couldn't have been anything but a calculated decision. At the very least, the paper ought to acknowledge this, and drop the absurdity of claiming objectivity. You can't be objective when using dehumanising terminology. Why not "Sub-human?"

I have seen comments deleted because someone suggested the reporter get a copy of Strunk and White (wasn't me, but I cheered it anyway), because the comments are critical of the police, or because the articles themselves have been ridiculed as fluff. Conversely, I've seen some of the vilest, cruelest, most racist/bigoted comments permitted to remain. Yes go right ahead, and have "your say", so long as it remains profitable to the publication, and stays within the parameters of local, "correct thought."

For my part, I'd really like to see the comment threads gone. It reflects poorly on the community as a whole (sorry, but that broad brush does a good job of painting all by the words of a vocal minority), and only encourages those already inclined to be bullies, and thugs. Oh, I know people will scream about the free speech issue, but comment threads on a local newspaper aren't Constitutionally guaranteed. You can still write a letter to the editor, start a blog, or stand on a box in the local park (as far as I know) but you still can't threaten, harass, or libel, no matter how obliquely. Ever notice those who scream the loudest about their "freedom of speech" are the least likely to understand the Constitutional protection?

I did not see the comment thread in question, but based on the numerous ones I have, it isn't difficult to conclude that "out of hand", probably means it would upset advertisers. Speaking as a resident of Eastern Nebraska, I can tell you that based on what I have read in the Journal Star over the last few years, I no longer "Shop Lincoln First." In fact, I simply do not go to Lincoln. That's right, I travel an extra half hour in the other direction to spend my grocery money. Omaha is much less convenient, but I have not spent grocery money (or really much of anything else) in Lincoln in over five years. I am a consumer, and as such I can make the decision to consume goods, and services in places where I am not viewed with hostility. The overwhelming message conveyed through the newspaper comment threads is that I am not welcome. True or not, that's the perception. So I shop in Omaha. I may be equally unwelcome in Omaha, but I am not made aware of it through vile comments posted on line, or articles with charged language designed to encourage awfulness.

At some point, the management of the paper made the decision to go with rubbish articles about popular culture, poorly written human interest stories, and inflammatory, ill-reasoned articles about local issues. They managed to sack the only journalists capable of writing sentences containing both nouns and verbs, and instead began publishing self-congratulatory articles by teenagers that carried out tasks requiring more than fifteen minutes of uninterrupted concentration.

I would happily pay for on-line content at a newspaper that didn't insult my intelligence, and then protest that they are the only reputable source of "news." That might well be the thing that saves the already damaged print media. As someone who reads numerous newspapers a day, and for years had mail subscriptions to papers from other parts of the country (they'd arrive a couple days late, but it was still a valuable thing to have access to in pre-internet days) I derive no pleasure from the potential demise of print media. We need investigative journalism, the population needs local reporting. I don't see any of that (at least not of any quality) happening at the Journal Star. What I see is a publication that gives the impression it is run by children-rather dim-witted ones at that, who are so used to being falsely praised for their brilliance in carrying out mediocre work that they are unable to recognise how foolish they appear.

Therefore, I'm out. To quote the poet Lew Welch from his painfully dead-on, Chicago Poem:

"Maybe part of it will die if I'm not around, feeding it anymore."

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