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Engaging the Next Generation By Shutting It Up

| June 13, 2010

But you might get a gift card.

We no longer subscribe to the once and future venerable News-Journal (future, yes: there’s always hope, Hugo reminds us, even for Les mizz), so news from journalism’s Jurassic takes a while to reach the present tense. When it did, we discovered that the new editor of the old property announced, in a letter to readers published on the front page of a Sunday paper, that the News-Journal’s online edition is “no longer allowing people to post anonymous comments.”

The letter was coyly worded. The newspaper isn’t disallowing merely anonymous comments. That leaves the impression that people who sign their name can still take advantage of the paper’s recent and repeated promise, delivered with Joe Isuzu insistence but without the humor, to be more inclusive. Nothing of the sort. It banned comments altogether.

A quick look at the nation’s top 10 newspapers, including the nobler ones like The Times and the skankier ones like the New York Post, all revel in rich comment sections. Quick scans down the list of smaller newspapers show the same enthusiasm, still, for reader comments, which can range from enriching and well informed to blitheringly stupid: a town square, in other words, though those who like silencing their town squares tend to have more in common with Mussolini and Georgian Josephs than Jeffersonians democrats.

So slashing comments out is relatively rare among metro newspaper, which leads to the natural conclusion, reflected in its plummeting circulation and rising insulation, that the News-Journal is embracing post-Davidson provincialism as part of its 12-step program to bottom-line recovery. Weekday circulation is down 33 percent in four years (from 105,000 in 2006 to 71,000 as of the paper’s last firing spree). Online readership was compensating some–until the paper muzzled that bit of interaction. Autocracy isn’t interesting politically or journalistically, and it’s certainly stifling if you’re on its receiving end, but it makes more money. The Chinese government should be delighted to run  advertorials in the broadsheet (though it’s getting narrower soon, too).

Last year a Boston Globe columnist wrote a semi-famous column dissing reader comments (“Got a comment? Keep it to yourself.” The clever ploy got him 193 comments and counting. So maybe this latest muzzle is just a clever ploy, a sort of comment version of Celine Dion’s compulsive-retirement disorder.

At least the pretense of engagement carries on, though Pier Paradise reminds us that to convince readers to take part in its self-touted “Readers’ Panel,” such as it is (it’s a web-based cosmetic thing commanding no attention the paper doesn’t want to give it, not an actual panel that meets face to face) it’s peddling gift cards. Not actual gift cards, of course: entrants qualify for a drawing that may get them a gift card. Here’s the catch: “Each time you complete a survey, you will be entered in a monthly drawing for great prizes.” It could be sloppy writing (see above). Doubtful, considering the other shout: “Click below and start earning points today!” The paper is literally encouraging the same readers to vote early and often, Louisiana style, thus demolishing the first principle of survey methodology: be sure not to let the same guy go twice.

Maybe they’ll use a similar method to calculate their circulation figures next.

Good news for the paper’s Flagler fans though. The paper, like the Times-Union in Jacksonville, is attempting to rediscover Flagler. This email was circulated around the newsroom this week: “As part of our improved coverage and strategic plan, we are creating a new reporting position in Flagler County to write for the daily paper and the Flagler/Palm Coast News-Tribune.” Quite deceiving: Kari Cobham, the Flagler squad’s best writer, bailed just before the new regime took over in April. That position is vacant. They’re merely aiming to refill it, three months late. Just don’t slip your resume under the door at the shuttered News-Journal building on U.S. 100. No word on gift cards if you apply.

That wasn’t the only bit of deception couched as commitment. earlier this month the News-Journal took 12 Sunshine State awards. “The staff’s showing exemplifies our commitment to readers,” Pat Rice, the new editor, said. Some commitment: The winners in half the categories either quit or were fired, or in one case had health issues. Cobham was in that group of “winners,” who also included Kelly Markowitz, a designer and managing editor, and Ron Hurtibise, an investigative reporter and video editor, two of the five first-place winners. Fired, both (they were among the 48 fired–or laid off, if you prefer–in the latest of many rounds).

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7 Responses for “Engaging the Next Generation By Shutting It Up”

  1. Bob K says:

    Well, I had a sneaking suspicion after I read your article blasting the N-J that there just MIGHT be some sour grapes here, so I went to their site and read “Mappping a Course for Future N-J editorials.” Lo and behold, just as I thought they are actually going to a format in line with what most of the residents of this area want; They are going to champion the rights of individuals and business, the life of our country and economy. I stopped buying that fish-wrapping rag years ago, because I couldn’t stand page after page of whoah with me, left-wing, the rich are trying to keep the poor man down whining. Apparently, I wasn’t alone as, like you point out, the readership dove deep into the basement. So, as a business enterprise, the N-J failed miserably, the new folks took over, and got rid of the reasons for failure, and you’re whining? This is reality. That paper wasn’t representing the views of the majority, so it went down like the Titantic. So, what is your real problem with them rejecting “anonymous” viewpoints Mr.,……ah,…..Ms…..uh; it seems you forgot to sign your name.

  2. elaygee says:

    Now that the DBNJ is just a house organ of the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party, we can all stop pretending that we read it.

    We said we did just to be loyal to a local paper.

    Now, Flagler Live, The West Volsuia Beacon and the Orlando Sentinel will have to do.

  3. Anita N. says:

    I’m so thrilled for the right-wing, tax phobic, big business suck ups! Having succeeded in eliminating the last source of balanced print reporting in this area, the DBNJ Fascists now feel free to consolidate their position by removing any vestiges of reader protest because they are the “owners”. No problem. The Net has long been providing me with a much richer supply of information. What I do resent is some joker claiming to represent the majority or Americans in general. I am an American, born and bred, who has watched elite CEOs aided by a compliant government suck the life out of this country and trample the rights of the individual working person even as they manipulated the media shamelessly. They depend on an ignorant and gullible electorate to keep the $$$ flowing their way. No criticism wanted, thank you!

  4. disorderly conduct{flaglr chat commoner} says:

    i hate the news journal-long live flagelr live

  5. Rick G says:

    In my travels around Volusia County I seldom here the drumbeat of we want more coverage of business and the “free” enterprise system unless I’m surrounded by business people or Republicans. On the other hand an improvement in local news may be a good thing as long as it isn’t tainted with right wing bias like the multiple stories all of a sudden about Glen Beck’s 912 movement in West Volusia. Why does the NJ give such free exposure to a group that offers little to our current problems and was and is eriely silent on the what to do about the Gulf Oil Disaster.

  6. Tom Brown says:

    After the Pat Rice announcement appeared, I sent him an e-mail, introduced myself (one of the 258 cut from the N-J payroll since June 08), and urged him to reinstate Talk Back. I have no problem with tougher rules to delete profane, racist and anti-Semitic comments, or even to require bona fide signatures. But I warned him if Talk Back is eliminated completely, it would be viewed as an effort to shield advertisers, certain officials or the N-J itself against criticism. His reply was “Thank you for your comment, I’ll consider it.” Of course, there are many other Internet sites where citizens can vent freely, anonymously or not. But the N-J is the de facto Town Hall (for Volusia County at least), and eliminating public reader feedback amounts to a return to quasi-censorship, where only a few, carefully selected, signed “Letters to the Editor” make it into print. I will continue sounding off from time to time, either under my own name, or “Boggled” (my N-J nom de plume) or “BeachcomberT,” my sig for all other websites. Pierre, thanks for allowing unfettered free speech to continue in Flagler. If some of your readers regard it as too “left-wing,” they are free to submit their right-wing correctives. What’s so hard to understand about that?

  7. eric says:

    The New York Times is “noble” and the NY Post is “skanky.” And Flagler Live is…well, noble, of course.

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