Sunday Commentary: Talking About the Vanguard

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It was interesting this week, and I have already put my thoughts on Dan Carson’s column into writing earlier this week. No disrespect to Mr. Carson, but the reader comments were more interesting to me. As I explained on Friday, we are always looking to improve and revamp what we do.

More interesting still were some private conversations and communications I have received from some longtime readers. The gist of the conversation is that they don’t read the Vanguard as much as they used to – and here’s why. They explained their reasoning in very different ways, but it basically came down to one factor – the comments.

Comments are an often-cited complaint about the Vanguard, which I find fascinating. First of all, it demonstrates just how important the comment section actually is in the Vanguard. After all, most online publications have comment sections these days, but most people read the publications for the content.

I mean, the Sacramento Bee’s comment section was atrocious for years, and you just didn’t read them – you read the articles. But the Vanguard’s comment section has often been seen as a slice into the Davis political mindset and thus required reading for those who wanted to know what the public was thinking – or at least one subsection or cross-section thereof.

Second, I have done a lot of reading on comment policies over the years, and the fact of the matter is that the Vanguard is not the only publication to have problems with comment sections. As I mentioned, the Sacramento Bee’s was particularly bad and they had to take steps to clean it up. Last spring, the Davis Enterprise comment section was far more pointed than ours.

Third, we have actually taken a lot of steps to clean up or at least civilize the comment section. Those who were around in 2009 during the Measure P campaign (Wild Horse Ranch) will recall a time when the comments were far more vicious. We now have the great work of Don Shor as moderator, we have rules, and we constantly are reviewing them.

Anonymous comments are always a flashpoint. There are some people who swear they will never post, participate, or submit articles as long as we have anonymous posters. There are others who swear they will not post or participate unless they can be anonymous.

I have told this story before, but I will repeat it. When I first started in 2006 I did so in response to a specific crisis in town. At that time, a lot of people came forward behind the scenes to give support. However, most of them were afraid to speak out publicly. Part of why I created the Vanguard was to give voice to those people who feared speaking out against the establishment for fear of what it might mean to their business, their jobs, or their perceived social status (though I’m obviously a bit less sympathetic to the latter).

With anonymity comes the perception of license to behave in ways you would never do if your name is attached to it. At the same time, it gives people the empowerment to speak without fear of consequences, and that can be a positive as well as a negative.

I understand people’s concerns about the comments. About 15 years ago I used to read and participate in a sports forum. It started out fairly small and the group of contributors was quite good. But the site grew in popularity over the years, and the comments became more and more inane. I found myself still reading the articles but reading comments and participating less and less.

Five or six years ago, we probably had one-tenth of the regular readership that we do today. The commenters come and go – some stick around, some leave and come back.

What I have concluded from all of this is that what we need to do is what we have been planning to do. We want to improve and broaden what we cover. That means that we reach our goal to get 22 people or more to commit to write just one piece a month.

Why? It adds to the diversity of opinion. And it reduces my workload which means that I can focus on one really good story a day. I’m already very pleased by the response. Davis has some amazing people with some remarkable resumes and background and that will only add to the work we are doing.

As I mentioned on Friday, the other thing is financial. Last year, we broke previous fundraising records by 50 percent. That has enabled me to hire a part-time assistant and pay myself a very small salary. For most of my time with the Vanguard, I have not drawn any kind of salary.

If I could not draw a salary for myself, but the Vanguard had the resources to hire additional reporters, imagine what our work product would be then.

I am humbled and very grateful for the community members who have extremely generously donated their money to the Vanguard last month, last year and over the last eight years. Between fundraisers and trying to get monthly subscribers, or, last month, matching donors, I probably spend 30 to 50 percent of my time now trying to raise money.

You want to see a better product – become a subscribers. It starts at $10 a month. Or you can do a one-time $120 donation. Click here for more details or to make a contribution.

As I said on Friday, we aim to improve what we do every year, every month. Every time the editorial board meets, one of the key questions I have is what can we do better and how can we do it better. Feedback is great – but the other thing I realized is that I also have to accept and acknowledge the things I can’t control.

Thanks for reading and let me know what I can do better.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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12 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Talking About the Vanguard”

  1. South of Davis

    David wrote:

    > no disrespect to Mr. Carson, the reader comments

    >were more interesting to me.

    No disrespect to David, but the reader comments are always more interesting to me…

      1. Dave Hart

        The comments are more interesting only when an anonymous commenter truly has inside information and because of that is taking a risk with their own livelihood or something similar.  Blanket anonymity is a bad policy and I believe that broadening the readership will not be successful over the long term as readers see the same group of anonymous commenters dominate the discussion and take it off topic.  If you’re anonymous, why not?

  2. Frankly

    With anonymity comes the perception of license to behave in ways you would never do if your name is attached to it. At the same time, it gives people the empowerment to speak without fear of consequences, and that can be a positive as well as a negative.

    You are sort of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  Without anonymity you will see the number of posters drop off, and there will be much less interesting content as people don’t speak their mind but speak in sanctioned ways.

    Consider the recent terrorist murders in France from anger over criticism of a profit of Islam.

    You might make the case that there is no connection between someone refusing to read or participate because they are angered, disturbed, frustrated or irritated with something someone else writes, and someone that goes out and kills the author… and you would be correct to a large extent.  But both response are actually related in that they both manifest from hypersensitivity.

    I think each of is born with a level of sensitivity, and then it develops from there from life experience and changes to our brain chemistry.  On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most sensitive and 1 being the least, I think we should all strive to be a 5.  That means those of us lacking filters need to develop them, and those of us afflicted with hypersensitivity need to develop tolerance.  Islamic fanatics get the exact opposite training… basically exploiting those with hypersensitive tendencies to wage a theocratic war against the world.

    But back to the main point…

    I think the Vanguard is generally a 5, but on certain topics it amps up to a 6 or 7… and on rare occasions it gets even more heated.  In other cases it is a 3-4… but go back and check it out… those are the articles that generate the fewest comments.

    And this gets to my final point… if you want to make a place safe for the hypersensitive, conversation will fall off.  Because of natural risk avoidance, people will just be silent rather than risk offending the hypersensitive.

    This thought reminds me of the The Giver, where the utopian community had rules about “precise speech”… a code of communication that helped ensure nobody got their feelings hurt.  And of course this then led to having to rewrite history books too as people would also get their feelings hurt…. and eventually the elimination of books in general because it was impossible to prevent the words in those books from hurting someone’s feelings.

    I look at a community blog as the virtual replacement for the old community square.  And in the old community square there would be a subset of the members of the community willing and able to participate in the group conversations.  And others would never consider it.  Then there were those that had interest, but lacking the ability to control their emotions or afflicted with a lack of self-confidence.

    I believe people complaining about the comments are people that would generally not participate in the town square group conversations for various reasons.

    Instead of moving toward a policy change that requires posters to user their real name (and note that doing this we should consider that we would be trading risk of real harm to posters only to mitigate the risk of reader’s hurt feelings)… the VG should consider a design enhancement that makes the comments invisible to those that don’t want to read them.  Then they can just read the articles.  And with that ability, if they still complain about the comments, it should be telling.

    1. Alan Miller

      “the VG should consider a design enhancement that makes the comments invisible to those that don’t want to read them.”

      Because simply not reading the comments if you don’t want to just isn’t enough.

  3. Tia Will

    Frankly

    the VG should consider a design enhancement that makes the comments invisible to those that don’t want to read them.  Then they can just read the articles.  And with that ability, if they still complain about the comments, it should be telling.”

    I think that this is an interesting proposal. However, I do wonder how this is different from the current ability to simply read the article, and then stop reading. I sometimes think that those who post their appreciation of the articles and then decry the quality of the subsequent posts may simply be dissatisfied with the presentation of ideas that they do not like. I have never understood why one would not simply skip the posts or those of  individuals whose opinions or style you do not like.

    Can someone clarify for me ?

     

  4. MrsW

    If I were to list the pros and cons of living in Davis, side-by-side, the existence of The Vanguard and its comments section is squarely on the “pro” side. I don’t know of another community that has a Vanguard and I think we’re extremely lucky that David chose Davis to give The Vanguard a try.

  5. tribeUSA

    DG–good job with the Vanguard all these years! I hope the comments policy does not change, and good job Don Shor with striking a good balance as moderator (based on his well-balanced input, which is nearly always calm and measured and knowledgable, I’d support a Don Shor for mayor of Davis nomination!).

    Seems to me the reader is 100% free to ignore the comments of anonymous posters or anyone else. There are legitimate reasons for posting anonymously. As an anonymous poster myself, I refrain from any personal attacks on any other Vanguard poster (though I will defend myself, without nasty counter-attacks) or local Davis public figure–perhaps we can agree this is a good etiquette rule for all anonymous posters?

  6. Dave Hart

    None reading the DV will miss the permanent anonymous commenters. In fact, I believe you will get more comments from a wider variety of people. The permanent anons will not be able to restrain themselves and will comment. We, the readers of the DV have nothing to lose but our boring-as-hell permanent anonymous. Please, David, and staff: consider granting conditional anonymity based on a one sentence reasonable request, liberally interpreted. Those kind of comments will indeed be read and given weight by your readers.

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