Pinch of Salt Graphic (English)

I am far from the first media person to opine about how our digital world has changed the public discourse, and I certainly won't be the last.

Still, after some comments about a recent story, I feel compelled to weigh in.

A president conducting international diplomacy (if you can call it that) via Twitter is, I fear, a sign of the times. The mean, almost always inaccurate, posts seen on the various Nextdoor networks offer a snapshot of the nasty polarization we're seeing in all facets of public discussion come down to the neighborhood level.

But in a sort of perverse way, the social media explosion has offered me more feedback than I've seen in my nearly 40-year journalism career.

For most of my newspapering days, I've functioned in a sort of vacuum. I used comparisons to police and baseball umpires often — the only time we get noticed is when we do something wrong.

Back in Colorado, I at least had the subscription levels to judge by. If subscriptions were up, we must be doing something right. But when you're working on a metropolitan daily, that doesn't exactly correlate to individual feedback.

It's been even harder at the Grunion. Except for a brief time when we sold mail subscriptions (imagine that), the paper has been free to all.

I hasten to add that I love it when I'm in public and people talk about how much they love the Grunion. I believe them, and who doesn't like it when someone comes up and says they like what you do?

But that's hardly a balanced sampling, and those conversations only occasionally get down to specifics of a story or an issue.

Of course, the social media rantings about specific stories, columns, or even rants aren't exactly balanced either. It's been proven over and over again through the years that people opposed to something are far more likely to voice an opinion than those who are in favor, so I expect it.

What I dislike, even though I've come to expect it too, is the tone. I guess there's something about the ability to type something and post it anonymously or with a name few recognize that insulates people from the need or desire to at least be civil.

I love it when someone disagrees with me and comes up with a rational, cogent — and polite — argument in opposition. That's when I learn, we discuss and an issue can move forward.

But when the argument starts with an insult and ends with a wish for my demise (it happens more than you might think), I have a tendency to dismiss any actual statement made in the middle. I suspect others in the line of fire do the same. At least others who don't fire back with the same vituperative approach.

Facebook is the primary platform where we see comments — a lot easier to type a word or three there than to actually write a letter to the editor. Sadly, that "engagement" has become a standard of judgment in my world.

A few topics seem to be surefire hits when it comes to garnering Facebook comments. Animals, and in particular animal control, is always on the list. Government policies ring the bell often too.

Then there's religion. I've used this space before to talk about my faith in Jesus, and I'll undoubtedly do so again. I guess most people are getting used to it — the comments have dropped to almost nothing.

But religion in general, and religious beliefs or actions, continue to fan the fires. Just one example before I go.

I wrote a story last week about the annual influx of Jehovah's Witnesses for a series of summer conventions at the Long Beach Arena. It was, more than anything, an explanation why Shoreline Drive and the downtown waterfront get exceedingly busy on summer weekends.

I put it on our website (TheGrunion.com) and Facebook. Almost immediately, there were a series of comments equating Jehovah's Witnesses to the devil, or worse.

Why? These folks didn't suggest the city ban the Witnesses from the arena, or to take any action, for that matter. It was just a chance to spew vindictive. Was that supposed to warn people to stay away from the arena on weekends, or what?

Please don't stop commenting. We need the feedback, and our world needs the interaction.

But make it more than name-calling condemnation. Please.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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