When I was a cub reporter at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, high tech consisted of a Hastech editing system (competitor to Atex), a bunch of Kaypro CPM machines used in the bureaus, and a fire/police scanner in the newsroom which I never developed a knack for listening to with my subconscious. This was 1983, the IBM PC had just been introduced, and answering machines — tape based things that sat between one’s phone and the phone line — were becoming all the rage.
The newspaper, in an effort to open its pages to its readers, set up an answering machine. Readers were invited to dial the general number and ask the operator to transfer them to the “Soundoff” machine (today, that would be the SoundOff Machine). There they could leave a rant about some issue that was bothering them. The next day the editor-in -chief’s assistant transcribed the tape and the best rants were edited down and printed on the op-ed page.
My favorite was one reader who said of a local politician: “His mother dresses him funny.” But I digress.
Let’s just say that “Soundoff” was pretty tedious and over time became dominated by a single issue: would the garbage collectors in the city of Lawrence continue to “roll-out” the citizen’s trash barrels or would the citizens have to lug their bins to the curb. Many an aldermanic and mayoral election hinged on this burning issue.
Now, nearly 25 years later, and newspapers are on the ropes seeking relevance. One way is to rebuild as networks of local blogs, or, as is the case with my local daily, The Cape Cod Times [disclosure, I interned there over the summer of 1980] to append reader comments to the bottom of stories. The Times redesigned and introduced reader comments this spring and I’ve been reading them ever since.
Let’s just say the tenor of the discussion isn’t up to Pulitzer levels. Yet. A surefire piece of flame bait seems to be dog bites. Seriously — the old “man-bites-dog” cliche is alive and well at the local level in reader comments.
If I were to write a novel about the seedy side of Cape Cod, it would have to be titled, “No Place to be a Dog” From the man who’s wife accused him of having relations with the dog (or was it the dog having relations with him?), to the two ladies who ran a mail order pit bull breeding operation and allegedly decapitated the head of a customer’s dog for nonpayment, to the lady who lived next door to the elementary school and who’s dogs got out (“who let the dogs” out was a true issue, it turned out to be a clueless roommate) and attacked third-graders, to the post office refusing to deliver mail to a neighborhood because of the presence of a scary pitbull, to the police shooting a pit bull during a drug raid — if you want to see classic flame fights, check out the comments on a Cape Cod Times dog bite story.
My point? Citizen journalism is even more proof of Tip O’Neil’s classic observation that “all politics are local” — in this case, citizen journalism is not giving silent would-be Thomas Paines their own printing press — it’s about people called “ThongRider” abusing the public pulpit anonymously to snark and slag dog owners, drunk drivers, and the underclass. Being a big fan of flamefests, I have to say — like talk radio and professional wrestling — the best part of the show is the audience.
[amendment: instead of quoting Tip O’Neil I probably should have been erudite and quoted Mencken or Bierce to the effect that we’re devolving into a true idiocracy where the real tragedy of the commons is two anonymous frigtards duking it out over the local leash laws]