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Tom Durkin: No comments from the Peanut Gallery

By Tom Durkin | Columnist

 

Write a letter to the editor.

Seriously.

If you don’t like the disappearance of online comments, you are invited to write a letter to the editor.



When I started in journalism way back in the 1980s, that was what we reporters told people when they didn’t like what was in the newspaper. Write a letter.

That’s all we could tell them.



It wasn’t as if there were such a 21st-century opportunity as online comments, where readers could not only interact with the paper’s writers and editors but also with each other.

Way back last century, there was no way for a newspaper to offer folks a chance to break out of their echo chambers to talk interactively with people they disagreed with.

And now, they still don’t.

SUDDEN IMPACT

A few weeks ago, The Union decided to double back to the days of yore … your opinion doesn’t really count. Write a letter to the editor. Maybe we’ll publish it, but probably not. No room.

Without warning, online comments were cut off. What? They thought we wouldn’t notice?

I asked our new editor Robert Summa why comments got cut. He explained:

• It’s too expensive to pay someone to moderate the comments (somebody’s got to police troll-like behavior).

• The money is needed for more important editorial functions.

• Only a minority of readers comment or just like to read the comments.

Then there was the irrefutable reason as to why comments were cut: It was a business decision.

Can’t argue with that.

Well, we can argue with that, but it won’t do any good, because newspapers are a business, and the purpose of a business is to make a profit. The way to make a profit is to sell ads because ad sales equal profit. The news costs money, and therefore, lessens profit. So, cutting costs in the news department is good for business.

Or something like that.

THE PRICE OF NEWS

Actually, the news doesn’t cost money. The news is free as the air.

Problem is: You have to pay reporters and editors to find the news and make sense of it (because the news, like the air, is often polluted).

Newspeople are expensive (although they think they’re not nearly expensive enough – just ask them).

Thus, the recent gutting of the news department at The Union appears to have been a business decision. Fewer reporters means more profit. Good for business but it’s bad news.

DESERTS AND JUNGLES

The Washington Post reported last November that about 2,200 local newspapers have died off since 2005. Communities without newspapers are called news deserts.

According to a July 19 opinion piece by Katrina vanden Heuvel in the Post, the country has lost 25% of its newspapers since 2005 and is losing about two local newspapers a week.

The Union is in danger of becoming a “ghost newspaper.” That’s a newspaper that is so understaffed that it can’t cover all the news that should be covered.

The Auburn Journal is an example. When I worked at the AJ last century, it was a vibrant, fully staffed, six-day-a-week daily. Today, it’s just a two-day-a-week ghost of itself even though it serves a larger community than The Union.

I don’t want to see that happen to The Union.

Vanden Heuvel quoted media columnist Margaret Sullivan: “As local news disappears, bad things happen: Voter participation declines. Corruption, in business and government, finds more fertile ground. And false information spreads wildly.”

In other words, it’s not a just news desert we have to worry about. It’s a social media jungle of rumors, innuendo, misinformation, disinformation and factional infighting that will take over if this newspaper goes away.

UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT

The Union has been sold twice this year. The newsroom has been decimated. The front page isn’t what it used to be. At the moment, the paper is “in irons,” a sailing term for dead in the water.

I was prepared not to like new editor Robert Summa, but he’s not who or what I thought he would be. He seems intent on resurrecting this into a real newspaper again. He sees a news story, and he jumps on it.

He said in his column last week that he’s still learning and understanding the community before he makes any “drastic changes.” Apparently, dropping comments wasn’t a drastic change.

I laid some heavy criticism on him about what I think is wrong with this newspaper. Instead of telling me to pack up my column and go home, he said, tell me more. So, we’re having lunch Friday.

Robert seems to be open to hearing from the community.

Maybe you should write this new editor a letter. Seriously.

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer, editor, and photo/videographer in Nevada County and a member of The Union Editorial Board. He may be contacted at tjdurkin3@gmail.com or http://www.tomdurkin-media.net


 

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