Engaging the Next Generation By Shutting It Up
FlaglerLive | June 13, 2010
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).