Scott Colom: Why anonymous commentators are good for us

June 15, 2011 12:28:00 PM

Scott Colom - colomsw@gmail.com

 

The comments after articles on The Commercial Dispatch website sometimes feel like a virtual battlefield. Anonymous commentators hide in the bunkers, waiting to fire bullets about topics like the CVB or the public schools. When they do, a brigade of commentators defend or respond to the attacks with equal ferocity. The back and forth name calling, accusations, and challenges between the commentators can go on for days, and there''s rarely a peace accord.  

 

Yet, I believe these anonymous battles can help improve the quality of local reporting in the Internet age.  

 

The emergence of computers and the Internet has dramatically changed what has been a staple of American discourse for centuries, the printed newspaper.  

 

The Internet has gone from being the new frontier for communication to a medium that permeates our lives. We have e-mails, instant messaging and social networking. Every interest, every topic, and the answer to every question is a Google search away. 

 

Needless to say, the popularity of the Internet has resulted in a significant decrease in newspaper subscriptions. Across the country, newspapers have struggled to respond to this decrease. The free ethos of the Internet makes it difficult for newspapers to charge for online content, and, even the newspapers that charge a subscription fee are not able to remotely replace the lost revenue from the decline in print news.  

 

This development has had negative side-effects on local reporting about municipal government. A recent study ordered by the Federal Communications Commission found that the reduction in revenue for newspapers has resulted in less money available for community papers to investigate and report about local government. The writer of the report, Steven Waldman, warned that this means the press is less of a watchdog and, as a result, local governments are less accountable to its citizens.  

 

Newspapers can compensate for the decline in local reporting by emphasizing the interactive features available with the Internet. Unlike with print newspapers, readers can respond to online articles. They can instantaneously express their opinions about the statements and actions of local officials and comment on the accuracy or thoroughness of a reporter''s work. Other readers can respond to these comments and important, organic dialogue can take place.  

 

The anonymity of most commentators allows people to make these comments without exposing their identity, and this can allow for sharper criticism and aggressive rhetoric. A few of my columns have been subjected to this. After reading "Cheering for Leondra and Omar," zenreaper, a regular commentator at the Dispatch website, called me a "disgrace to my race." (In all fairness, zenreaper has complimented subsequent columns.)  

 

Despite this, the benefits from allowing anonymity far outweigh the negatives. In a small town like Columbus, opinions spread fast. People are more likely to know each other, and, if they don''t know each other, are more likely to have similar acquaintances or be familiar with a name. Therefore, it can be difficult to keep conversations and opinions confidential. Anonymity allows people to speak without worrying about subjecting themselves to animosity or revenge or breaking our tradition of Southern politeness. 

 

Certainly, online commentary can''t completely replace local reporting. Local papers should take additional steps to use the interactive features of the Internet to replace traditional news, such as inviting bloggers to write on the website or creating online forums to question politicians. The trend towards reading news online will only increase in the decades to come as younger generations, folks who grow up reading news on a computer screen rather than in a paper, mature. The newspapers that realize people are becoming more accustomed to interacting with the news and effectively respond to this trend will prosper.

Scott Colom is a local attorney.