Change on the way

In the bowels of The Martha’s Vineyard Times’ techno center, things are humming. Change is on the way at mvtimes.com. In the nearly two decades that the newspaper has published a web site, it’s been changed, and changed, and changed again. I’ve lost count. Each edition of mvtimes.com has won awards from our newspaper peers, including the one we’ve just set out to revamp. In fact, whenever we’ve had an award-winning site, we’ve scratched to the relentless itch to improve it. You may have noticed already some of what we’ve done, namely changing the navigation features and moving some standing features. More is on the way, some of it structural and invisible, some of it more obvious, a sort of digital weeding of the garden of features that have attracted your interest and others that have inspired your eloquent "Ho hum."

For the record, of course I’m writing this to alert you that what you’ve become accustomed to at mvtimes.com will gradually be transformed over the next few weeks. But also, for the record, I’m pleading with you to hold your fire. There are many of you who are notoriously (notorious to us, that is) opposed to change. We understand that, and we sympathize. All we ask is that, before you fire off that violently deflating email telling us to stop messing around with your site and return things to the way they were, give it a chance. Chill. Hang with it a little. Let it work for you. Then, let us know what you think. Our nerves are jangled enough already. We tremble at the thought of disappointing you.

According to the theory that a newspaper participates in a weekly or daily conversation with its readers, you and we are supposed to talk with, not yell at, one another. We’re supposed to work together. But that notion has been overtaken by the viral quality of the contention culture in which we’ve practiced newspapering over the past 25 years. Yelling, in nearly all human-to-human exchanges, whether oral or written, is now common. The conversational metaphor for a newspaper’s communication with its readers seems no longer to apply.

But, we’re a trifle retro, so among the more prominent changes you’ll notice are some stiffened protocols for those of you who post Comments on mvtimes.com. I know that, years ago, when the conversation thing was going on, it was a lopsided conversation, at best. The paper handed out the word, the readers wrote letters, which the paper elected to publish, or not. Of course, we publish almost all the Letters to the Editor we receive for the print newspaper. Some letters don’t make the grade, or at least parts of some letters, but generally we hold dear the notion that the letters columns ought to be a place, like Alley’s Porch or Squid Row behind Menemsha Texaco or Bert’s Barber Shop, or the Wharf, where Islanders and their friends, neighbors, and guests get together to gab.

I do not include among the Letters to the Editor all the letters and e-mails that I receive. Sometimes that’s because they are shockingly profane. They fail to meet rudimentary community standards as we define them. I blush to read them. I would not impose them on you.

But, times, and The Martha’s Vineyard Times, change. Now, on mvtimes.com, the possibility of conversation, not just once a week but any time, exists in several forms. Whereas, in the old days whose conversations sparked this reverie, we talked with you, and you talked with us. Now, thanks to the ever present, ever evolving, ever demanding, ever shocking, often tiresome, and relentlessly with-it Internet, we talk with you, you talk with us, but if you like, you can talk with others of you, and leave us out.

The Comment feature especially permits you to converse with other readers, whether neighbors, in a Vineyard sense, or in a planetary sense. You can converse about something we’ve published, or something else you’d rather talk about. You can even verbally skin a neighbor alive, as some of you have apparently enjoyed doing, via The Martha’s Vineyard Times Comment feature. Welcome to the 21st Century and the web.

To me, some of these aggressive conversational opportunities seem pointless, and painful. For instance, one benighted Islander with access to email wrote recently: Dear Mr. Editor: Everything you and your newspaper write is worthless. Why don’t you give it up and go away. (What’s the likelihood that I’ll take this to heart? Not great.)

This is an example of a communication that cannot possibly advance the community conversation to which the letters, comments, forums, feedback, and blogs are dedicated.

We acknowledge that the rules for letters in print and comments or other postings online differ. The latter enjoy greater latitude. We don’t quite understand why this should be, but it is what prevails in the digital world, so we try to keep up. Still, in an attempt to steer the Comment conversation away from jihadist aggression to thoughtful, communal analysis and observation, we’ve steadily added hurdles, or curbs, if you will. For instance, we re-wrote the terms of agreement for posters and did our best to require posters to read and assent to the rules. We put up a complaint feature, so someone could write asking for review of a post deemed below the standard. Then we added a review feature, so that every single Comment posted comes to me first for review, approval, and posting.

How’d that all work for ya, you may be asking, in your smirking way. Not as well as I might have liked, I admit. So, we go further. Now, all Comment posters must include a name, address, and verifiable telephone number. As I’ve written before, in most cases there is something Templeton-like that attaches to a Comment poster who chooses to thrust his opinion forward while keeping his identity in the shadows at the edge of the conversation. Anyhow, absent entries in these new required fields, the Comment goes to the digital dustbin.

Upon preliminary analysis, there is a hint of progress. We don’t profess to have turned the course of history back toward conversational civility, but in the newspaper game, holding the line while we wait for folks to come to their senses and demand news the way it ought to be may be the best strategy for the near term.