There are two schools of thought on small-town America — no, three. Briefly:
School 1: Heaven
School 2: Hell
School 3: It’s more complicated than that
See if you can guess which one I favor.
Anyhoo, school no. 2 got a big boost today from the biggest town in the world’s fave newspaper, the New York Times. With the homespun dateline of Mountain Grove, Mo., we learn:
One of the established places here for trading the gossip of the day is Dee’s Place, a country diner where a dozen longtime residents gather each morning around a table permanently reserved with a members-only sign for the “Old Farts Club,” as they call themselves, to talk about weather, politics and, of course, their neighbors.
But of late, more people in this hardscrabble town of 5,000 have shifted from sharing the latest news and rumors over eggs and coffee to the Mountain Grove Forum on a social media Web site called Topix, where they write and read startlingly negative posts, all cloaked in anonymity, about one another.
Color me…unsurprised. I’ve lived too long to be shocked by the fact shiny surfaces sometimes hide ugliness within, or that Mayberry was a myth, or whatever. The part of the story I find interesting is on the second page, in which the chief executive of Topix looks around the room and says, “Who, me?” Like this:
Mr. Tolles …defended it on free-speech grounds. He said the comments are funny to read, make private gossip public, provide a platform for “people who have negative things to say” and are better for business.
At one point, he said, the company tried to remove all negative posts, but it stopped after discovering that commenters had stopped visiting the site. “This is small-town America,” he said. “The voices these guys are hearing are of their friends and neighbors.”
Mr. Tolles also said the site played a journalistic role, including providing a place for whistle-blowing and candid discussion of local politics.
He noted that the Mountain Grove Forum, which had 3,700 visitors on a single day this month, had 1,200 posts containing the word “corruption,” though it was unclear how many of them were true. One resident used the site to rail against local officials, helping build support for a petition-driven state audit of town government.
Only an internet executive could use the presence of a single word to argue that a scuzzy poison-pen message board somehow qualifies as journalism. (Never work harder than cntrl-F, I always say.) Actually, I’m amazed the NYT was able to get him on the horn at all, although hey — they’re the NYT. I bet the people who’ve been the victims of their nastier neighbors on Topix sites haven’t been so fortunate. Perhaps they’ve been told, instead, to start their own thread, to fight words with words, and other helpful advice.
As you know, my experience in journalism runs from lamestream to present-day, and one of the things I struggle with, weekly if not daily, is how much the latter has to learn from the former. I used to be a fan of anonymous posting; I’m not so much anymore. I used to believe a lot of that Jeff Jarvis spiel about throwing it all out there in the name of immediacy and letting the self-correcting internet sort it out; not so much anymore. I’ve learned that readers are busy and time-starved and all that stuff they told us pretty much throughout the ’80s, but they’re also lazy and disinclined to dig deeper for truth, because they have to race down their Facebook news feed to find out what the slacktivist meme of the moment is — change your profile picture to raise awareness of something, or whatever.
I’ll give you an example: We recently went through a bruising battle here over the hiring of a new superintendent of our local schools. A minority of the board didn’t like the internal candidate, pushed hard from the beginning by the majority, and the vote to hire him was 4-3. At the meeting to approve his contract, one of the minority members tossed out the figure $700,000, which he said was the total value of his 2.5-year contract. As near as I can tell, that figure was arrived at by taking his salary, bennies, retirement and office-coffee consumption and multiplying by 2.5, then rounding generously, sort of like the calculation of the street value of a pound of marijuana.
But he said it at the meeting, and the other online news source, Patch, reported it. (My online news source wasn’t there, because this meeting happened between WSU terms, which meant I had no reporters. I was at another meeting, thinking the contract approval would be pro forma and less newsworthy. So in our semi-hiatus month, we didn’t have a story.) They had to, and I don’t blame them — their mandate is immediacy, and it came out of the mouth of a board member. But there it was: The new superintendent is costing the district $700,000, in the subhead.
This then gets bundled into the social-media presentations, and the comments start. Wow! $700,000 — that’s a lot of money! And so on. Where do I apply? I could use $700,000, etc. Two days later, the reporter files a deeper dive into the contract, broken down by salary ($175,000, about what the last supe was making, and entirely in keeping with the marketplace for districts of our size and quality) and other benefits, and now the estimates for the total compensation are about $200,000 per year, or $500,000 over the length of the contract. This story, I should add, gets far less Facebook chatter, perhaps because the original amplifiers are chastened, or maybe because it’s more reasonable.
But I remain convinced there are people in this community who read no further than the subhead and Facebook comments, and believe the new superintendent is earning $700,000 in salary alone. If we had a Topix board here, there would probably be speculation about on-call massage therapists and other, you know, CORRUPTION. What is it they say about truth and lies and which one puts its shoes on faster?
I’m starting to see the benefit in the ol’ skool, where if you wanted to write a letter to the editor, you had to use your full name, the letter was carried by the ponderous U.S. Postal Service and the paper called to verify your identity, all of which gave you many stops on the path to reconsider.
OK, time to go to work, so how about a 180-degree turn with the bloggage?
What we had with our roast chicken Saturday night. Super-duper yum factor. Which should remind us that it’s probably time to fix something from the Minimalist’s greatest hits. Not many wrong turns there.
What Was There, a site that layers historic photos onto Google street-view shots. Oh, you librarians will love this one.
Finally, late-breaking news from Toledo: FBI raids several local IHOPs, reportedly on suspicion of TERRORIST ACTIVITY. I am not making this up. Big hat tip to our treasure, Dexter.
And I think that’s it. Happy Tuesday to all.