Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sentinel Sends Curmudgeons Christmas Coal - 'Community' Canned

While navigating the Daily Sentinel's website a couple of days ago, I noticed that the Opinion Page had the return of Letters to the Editor listings. These letters were moved to the Sentinel's Community website when it was created in February 2008.

As it happens, these links appear to herald the quiet and unceremonious demise of the Community site itself. The link remains on the Sentinel's website, but directs readers to the main Opinion page.

I wrote about the Community site twice in 2008, when it launched and when Sentinel staff had to intervene to attempt to quell some commentary in the Forums section that had devolved into a flame war. I wrote back then:
The Sentinel and its' parent company (whomever that may be in the future) are keenly aware of how the manner in which the Community site is used is a direct reflection on the reputation of the Sentinel and the domain I applaud their level of tolerance and restraint up to this point in time, but I also feel that their recent action was necessary. The challenge now is to put some consistency and accountability behind the rhetoric.
In the 14 months since that post, I didn't pay much attention to the Community site, save to review the Letters to the Editor. Ironically, I made a comment on one of those letters last week, the first time in a long while. My uneducated impression since last year was that the site was not growing, and the 'community' it was serving was just a niche group of heavily opinionated individuals. Not that there's a problem with that, but I can see the increased difficulty for the Sentinel to expend manhours to maintain a site in such a condition.

I sent an e-mail to Bob Silbernagel, who is in charge of the Sentinel's editorial content, asking for some insight as to why the site was disappeared without so much as a single-column obituary.
For those of you who may not follow Bob's online video series Over The Top, he's on a beach somewhere right now. I hope to hear from him when he returns.

The Community site's demise is not a matter of particular concern to me. The handwriting was on the wall a year ago. I'm more concerned about how these things affect mindsets and trends. I'm hoping that the mindset at the Sentinel in the Seaton era is not to back off of robust, interactive online content that affords the educated reader the ability to interact with those producing content, and that access to online content, and enhancement of the print experience through it, remains as available as it possibly can be. In other words, free.

I'm still a big fan of the YourHub site sponsored by the Denver Post, and the manner in which it allows members of numerous Metro Denver neighborhoods and communities to produce and moderate content specific to their areas. I still think that something like that has great potential for the Grand Junction metro area. End of sales pitch.

I feel bad that didn't work out. I know there are better ideas out there that may make more sense in lots of ways.

Have a good day.


John Linko said...

Len left the following comments on a previous post, but they're very appropriate to the discussion here.


Len said:

I'm with you. This change says something -- as much about us as an online community as about the Sentinel itself, probably.

I am fascinated with the idea that information technology CAN facilitate building community and/or social capital.

I say CAN, because the longer I've worked on this, the more I realize that it isn't all that easy. It has to be done with intent. And, managed with intent. It can't be just setting up a separate space where opinionated people with time on their hands can go and shout at each other. Those people tend to self-select, and the rest of us usually don't enjoy our infrequent visits to that space.

Network theory though does posit that by making connections, relationships can be built, and out of relationships can come shared vision, ideas and commitment; and that's the type of "community" I'd certainly want to become part of.

Back to the Sentinel. I don't think that community space was really more than a set of soap boxes on the corners in an intersection. So, I don't guess I'll miss it too much.

What would be cool, though, is if there were some sort of place that integrates news, blogs, opinion, comment, information, etc. in such a way as to allow us all to make connections, build relationships on mutual respect even if we don't agree; and to talk about who we all are together in this community and what stake we have in its success. And, in each others' success.

...a little more on my previous comment about community space. I don't know what the exact right ingredients should be to facilitate community building, but, John, you're probably familiar with CapeCodToday ( ), that brings a yeasty mix of info together to at least get a large conversation going and rolling at all times. I don't for a minute think that Walter Brooks, a newspaper guy who designed and now manages this site, has nailed it by any means. But, I somehow feel like he's on the right track to bring blogs, news, opinion, information, community events, services, and plenty more, into a single "space." His intent (besides to make money on advertising) is to get as many of us all together in the same "space" as possible, and expose us to a rich and diverse soup of information and ideas, and hope that something yeasty starts to happen.

Boy, I wish I had the time and depth of knowledge to work on this full time. I think it's the true promise of information technology. And, I'd love to see that promise realized in our own community of Grand Junction. But, realizing the promise will take some serious thought and design. And, then management.

Yadah said...

I like Len's thinking and would be interested in this sort of virtual community as well. Facebook is fairly surfacy in this respect, but having a place to check in and then have those meaty discussions would be of great interst to me.

John Linko said...

Bob Silbernagel replied to my e-mail today. He attached the notification made on the Community site sometime last week. His comments included, "It really was the degrading nature of the discussion and the time it took to police the site that led to the decision. There were days when I deleted more than half of the comments over a several hour period because they were personal attacks."

Here's the post from last week. Thanks to Bob for his quick reply.


Dear Posters:

Beginning Thursday, will be no more. There are several reasons for this change.

One is that we have received complaints from a number of letter writers who have asked that we not post their letters to the editor on the Community site. They are upfront enough to attach their names to the opinions they express in their letters, and they believe it is unfair that anonymous posters can engage in personal attacks on them through the Community site. It’s a valid argument. Although a few posters use their own names, most hide behind fictitious Web monikers.

However, by far the most important reason for eliminating Community is the degradation of public debate occurring there. When we launched Community, we hoped it would become a sort of online coffee shop, where readers could engage in reasoned discussions about issues of the day, both locally and nationally. Unfortunately, too often the Community site has been more akin to a saloon at closing time, where patrons shout opinions at each other, engage in personal attacks and repeat the same opinions over and over. That does nothing to enhance public debate.

We know there are readers who eagerly joined discussions on Community, only to leave in disgust over the tone of the debate. Some have vowed never to return to Community. Others continue to try to engage in reasoned debate, and continually get frustrated by the personal attacks and repetitious arguments. To them we can only say we also wish the tone of the discussions was different.

We will still have many more letters to the editor than we can publish in the print edition of The Daily Sentinel. We will post most of them in a special letters page under the “Opinion” section of

We launched nearly two years ago with high hopes that it would become a lively online discussion place with many voices being included. Now, there are only a handful who visit regularly. It’s time to close the doors.