THIS MONDAY was the first Monday of the New Year, and I was just back from vacation, and the air was fresh and full of promise. Best of all, my inbox wasn't too full.
Still there were a couple nice messages in there, and one in particular caught my eye. A faithful reader wrote to ask -- plead, really -- regarding Town Square.
Specifically, she wondered: What's it good for? Given all the bigots, crazies and negative nellies on there, it seems to be more of a failed experiment than a useful tool. Or so she thought.
I think her message speaks to the concerns of many readers. Below is her e-mail, followed by my response:
I would like to wish you and the Voice well in the coming year.
I also want to tell you that I'm seriously considering making a New Year's Resolution not to read Town Square. It's a waste of time and resources.
I would really like to know what you're trying to do with this feature. At this point, it offers us no useful info and often no display of even common courtesy by the contributors. The same proudly ignorant and often bigoted people seem to be spending all their time just mouthing off. Yes, I did see your column responding to one of them, several weeks ago, but he's back again with more of the same.
Possibilities for amelioration: The format of the feature openly encourages this unproductive behavior by not requiring people to provide their real names. If they had to do that, perhaps they might think a bit before hitting send. Do you think it's worth a try? How about limiting the number of times the same person can comment on one story?
Not requiring online commentary to conform to any of the standards that printed letters to the editor must is disrespectful to your readers, as well as to the medium.
Happy New Year. I'm just back from a weeklong vacation and have been blissfully ignorant of the doings on Town Square.
A funny thing about the Internet: Now you know what everyone is thinking. Turns out, maybe you didn't want to know.
As for your suggestion: Unfortunately, requiring that people put their real names before posting is not logistically possible. Short of making them come down to the office with a photo ID, how would you do it? The closest we come to accountability is the login requirement, which I do use for the more sensitive stories. It's possible for posters to keep their anonymity while logging in, but then at least we have an e-mail address to reach them with, and it's easier to ban irresponsible commenters by revoking their login.
Town Square has had some good aspects. It helps us to know what stories people are interested in. It has led to actual scoops before (the postings can act as a sort of rumor mill). It's been a good emotional outlet in some cases, as when Rosemary Stasek died. And from a business standpoint, it increases our page views dramatically, which makes our online ads much more viable -- and that's the future of newspapers, so we're not about to give that up.
Bottom line: It's here to stay. Though frankly I don't blame anyone for skipping it. Many faithful readers get the full Voice experience while never bothering with Town Square -- remaining just as blissfully ignorant of it as I was over the past week.