Monday, June 30, 2008

Complaints and comments

C: The Poll Comment Post started out as a great site, but has been getting out of hand lately.
Free speech aside, something needs to be done about the foul language, the implied foul language & name calling, and some of the other nonsense that is being posted unchecked on that site. -R.H.

A: Many newspaper readers are uncomfortable with changes in content. When they complain about us dropping a comic or adding a new feature they don't like, I argue that change is necessary because our audience is always changing. Every day, subscribers die or quit the paper, and new ones sign up.

It's the same thing with O-R Online. Our audience is changing, and getting bigger. In fact, we now have more than 40,000 individual visitors to our site each week - nearly twice the number visiting the site 18 months ago.

I have to agree with you. That audience 18 months ago was pretty well behaved. It was rare that any readers wrote anything bad enough to be stricken. That's not the case now. Frankly, we are struggling to decide where to draw the line; what language is unacceptable; what comment is too stupid or incendiary to pass along to the rest of our audience.

The Web audience and the newspaper audience are different. We are quite accustomed to dealing with newspaper readers. Online readers are still a bit of a mystery to us. But one thing that helps us is comments like yours.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Center of Europe, Part 4

(The island castle at Trakai)

Glaciers came from the north and scraped what is now Lithuania clean and flat and free of boulders. When they receded, the low spots filled with water, creating hundreds of lakes.

A civilization grew here that by the 13th century was strong enough to defend itself from its hostile neighbors. By the 15th century, the kingdom of Lithuania was the largest in Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. First its knights and then its merchants traveled back and forth to India for its jewels and spices and brought back with them some of the Sanskrit language that is evident in modern Lithuanian.

But the kingdom was overrun again, not by glaciers but by the Swedes and Poles and Germans and Prussians and Russians. By the 18th century, it no longer existed. It won independence in 1918, but soon much of the country was occupied by Poland, and then came World War II. Lithuania was overrun by the Germans, and after the war it came under control of the Soviet Union.

In 1991, it won its independence again. It is a new nation, struggling through its teenage years. But at the same time, it is an ancient land, dotted with burial mounds that hold human remains surrounded by tools and pottery that date civilization here to 4500 B.C.

Sometimes, you have a moment. You see something that hits you like a brick. Maybe it's a group of kids walking across a bridge to an old castle, and you see in their faces their Scandinavian and Slavic heritage, and all of a sudden you feel as if you've just seen the history of the world.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

C: Could you please put something happy on the front page, something good that happens in the U.S.A.? - N.B.

A: Oh, all right, you win. Today's front page features a couple of photos of bunch of girls having fun at vacation Bible school. Can we get more happy than that? However, we resisted the urge to write this caption: "Police used Tasers to subdue aggressive teenagers who attacked each other with water when a Bible camp game got out of hand Wednesday. No one was injured, but charges of assault are expected to be filed."

The Center of Europe, Part 3

We are griping about $4-a-gallon gasoline here in the U.S., and for good reason. But can you imagine what life might be like here if we had to pay $44 a gallon? In real money - that is, as a percentage of income - that's what Lithuanians are paying for fuel.

The price of gasoline is rising constantly in Lithuania, too, and earlier this month it was selling for the equivalent of $6.50 a gallon. That's a bargain by European standards. In Norway, for instance, they're paying more than $11 per gallon.

But the problem for Lithuanians is that they don't earn much. In fact, the average income in the U.S. is almost 7 times higher than the average income in Lithuania.

It's hard for us to imagine gasoline commanding that much of our income, but here's an illustration: Just imagine owning a car that would run on nothing by Scotch whisky. Think of the cost of a fill-up at the State Store.

It's no wonder that the roads aren't exactly crawling with vehicles. Driving from Vilnius three hours north to Rokiskis, where we stayed for 10 days, was a pleasant cruise on two-lane roads, occasionally encountering another vehicle, passing by fields of green hay and brilliant yellow rapeseed, punctuated by purple thistle and lupine.

We passed farmers plowing their fields the old-fashioned way, guiding a plow pulled by a horse.

It's no wonder.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Center of Europe, Part 2

Lithuania is a country without natural resources. Once, many hundreds of years ago, it was a huge nation that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Now, it is the size of West Virginia, but without the advantage of that state's coal.

Even after its first unit was shut down in 2004, the Ignalina nuclear power plant supplies 70 percent of Lithuania's electricity. But as a condition for entry into the European Union, this old Soviet-style, Chernobyl-like reactor must be shut down in 2009. The decision has been made, and the plant will close, and thousands of jobs in northeastern Lithuania, where jobs are exceedingly scarce, will be lost. Not only that, the cost of electricity will skyrocket because the options are not many: Buy electricity from Russia or build a new reactor, at a cost of perhaps $18 billion.

Joining the European Union will be advantageous to Lithuanians, but painful as well. They have become accustomed to pain. The official unemployment rate is now down to 4 percent, but that figure is deceiving. In Lithuania, if you own a cow, which many families do just for the sake of survival, you are considered a farmer and thus employed.

The employment picture is better, though, because there are fewer people now. Massive emigration has depleted the population. It's estimated that among the young and educated, one of every four has left the country since independence in 1991.

What they've left is a beautiful landscape, verdant, and spotted with lakes of crystal-clear water. Driving through it, knowing something of these peoples' troubles, it makes your heart ache.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Center of Europe, Part 1

Perhaps it was a geographer with too much time on his hands who determined the Rugby, North Dakota, was at the absolute center of the North American continent. And it must have been another who determined that the geographic center of Europe was a spot 20 minutes' drive north of Vilnius, Lithuania.

Looking at the map, you may wonder about this determination, considering that Vilnius is a good 2,500 miles from Lisbon, but you must consider all of Scandinavia and Russia to the Urals in the calculation.
Nevertheless, on June 9 - a bright and windy Monday afternoon - we reached the marker just off a two-lane road and in the middle of a golf course. Golf is not exactly a popular sport in Lithuania. What the course was doing there, I don't know, and there was no one around to ask.

A few miles away is Europe Park, 135 acres where paths wind among tall pines and clearings where sculpture has been placed. The park was founded in 1991 by Lithuanian sculptor Ginntaras Karosas shortly after his country became independent from the Soviet Union. The goal of this outdoor museum is to give "artistic significance to the geographic center of Europe." More than 100 works by sculptors from 32 countries are exhibited there. The bronze sculpture shown here is "Electricity," by Lithuanian artist Evaldas Pauza.

It's electricity, by the way, that's at the root of Lithuania's most perplexing problem. More on that tomorrow.

Complaints and questions

C: I am writing to question or at least bring attention to an apparent lack of consistency or communication within the O-R family. Does the O-R have an editorial board policy of seeking general public participation in editorial decisions or does it have a policy of seeking participation strictly from chosen special interests?

In two recent O-R endorsed publications, I noticed an apparent editorial inconsistency between the two because they show a contrasting policy of courting special interests yet masquerading as champions of fair play, ethics, and open journalism. To be specific, on May 14, 2008, the lead article on the Editorial page was titled: “State must boost Medicaid funding.” At the end of the first column a paragraph begins as follows: “PANPHA, a coalition formed by various providers of care for the elderly, has been sending representatives around the state to call attention to the problem. When they met the Observer-Reporter editorial board, they pointed out that Welfare Secretary Estelle Richman..."

This caught my attention as I remembered a past entry from the blog of the “Grumpy Old Editor” that was in stark contrast to what I just read on his editorial page. It took me awhile to find it, but I have paraphrased it below from his June 11, 2007, blog entry: “Someone wrote the other day and asked me if we have a program of public participation on our editorial board and allow representatives of the public to attend our editorial meetings to decide editorial opinion and news content. This person represented a special interest group that he believes does not get enough exposure in the media... Some newspapers do have such a program... That's not the case here... We are a business, not a public utility. Frankly, what we print in the newspaper is what our subscribers want to read and are willing to pay for. Our editorial opinions are that of the newspaper's owners and its editors, reached after thoughtful analysis and sometimes after heated debate... It's our feeling that readers should be exposed to the news and to a diversity of opinion - no matter how unpopular that news or view might be - so that they can form their own reasoned opinions. Making news selection an equal-opportunity process for special interests can only distort that exposure and hinder the process of reasoned thought.”

Do you see the inconsistency? We have one “special interest” asking for access to the editorial board and being denied, and we have one “special interest” asking for access and being not only welcomed but given public exposure... - J.L.

A: (I'll let Lou Florian, editor of the editorial page, answer this one...)

The comparison is between apples and oranges. The question Park
addressed was about allowing representatives of the public to attend
our editorial meetings to decide editorial opinion and news content and
he answered correctly that we do not allow such participation. However,
we will meet with groups, including government officials, who want to
make a case for their programs. Obviously, we don't have time to
accommodate everybody and we limit it to matters of public interest. We
do our decision-making, however, without them.

We also interview candidates for major public offices before
elections, but we don't let them decide whether we'll endorse them.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Home from Lithuania

Scroll down just a little and take a look at the last photo I posted, on June 5. That was of Dijana Kanciene and two of her daughters five years ago. I took this photo last week, which shows Dijana with the same two daughters: Santa, 17, who just graduated from high school, and Teresa, now 5.

A lot has changed in Lithuania in those five years, most of it for the better. But it's still a country with many problems. I'll be writing about it over the next two weeks, and introducing you to some of its people.

I'm sure few people are aware of this, but Lithuania is the geographic center of Europe. That's a rather dubious distinction that together with 3 litas will get any Lithuanian a large mug of beer. Nevertheless, it calls to mind that Europe encompasses much more than tourist attractions of Paris and Rome that bubble to the surface of the American mind.

So, we'll call this next series "The Center of Europe." It starts tomorrow.

Whine, whine, whine

C: Please - You must begin distributing grocery coupons, like the Post-Gazette and Tribune Review, otherwise I'll have to cancel. These coupons are more valuable than ever now. - M.M.

A: This reminds me of another frequent suggestion: "Print more obituaries!" Short of going out and killing people, we have no control over the number of obituaries published in our newspaper. It's the same way with coupons.

Several large advertising companies distribute manufacturers' coupons. These companies conduct market research and target certain areas for coupon distribution. Sometimes, coupons go to both larger and smaller newspapers, but most of the time these advertising companies pay large metropolitan papers in targeted areas to distribute the coupons.

We have lobbied these companies to include us in their distributions, but they are not at all interested in our readers' problems in managing their food budgets. Their only interest is in the data they gather from the redeemed coupons.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Goodbye, until June 23

I suppose a really dedicated blogger would own a laptop and take it with him no matter where he was going, but I think of vacation as a time to remove myself from computers.

I'll be gone for a couple of weeks. Enjoy the other blogs at O-R Online while I'm away.
Eight of us representing the Washington Rotary Club are headed to Lithuania, via Prague. It's a working vacation. We'll be spending a couple of days in Obeilei, Lithuania, painting, cleaning and doing repairs at Arteities Vardan, a safe house for abused and neglected children. Our Rotary club has been assisting it for several years and even paid for one of the kids from the home to attend college.

You may remember Dijana Kanciene, pictured here with two of her daughters. "Saint Dijana," as the townsfolk call her, runs Arteities Vardan. She'll be our boss. It will be good to see her again.

I'll be writing about our experiences and sharing photos when I return.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

I was in a meeting this morning, and when I returned, there was an angry message on my phone. It was from a 25-year subscriber who said he was quitting the paper after reading this morning's editorial about the gun-control debate.
The caller advised me to take my newspaper and put it in a place I can't mention, but I'm sure it would hurt.

The caller's point was that "guns aren't the problem in this country. It's the U.S government that's the problem."

For the record, our editorial never implied that "guns are the problem in this country." Our editorial was about how old is the debate over guns, citing an editorial that appeared in this newspaper in 1878 that decried the bearing of concealed weapons in this community.

I have to say, this is one for the books: a subscriber quitting over something we printed 130 years ago.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Complaints and questions

It seemed like a good idea at the time...

That idea was to write about a European Web site devoted to women on Pennsylvania's death row. There is little question that the creators of the Web site are opponents of the death penalty and are interested in rallying support for these poor women, who are victims in their eyes.

The point of the May 18 article by staff writer Linda Metz was that the Web site completely ignores why these women are on death row to begin with. Of particular interest is one of the convicts: Michelle Tharp, who was sentenced to death in Washington County for starving her daughter, Tausha Lanham, to death and dumping her body in a trash bag along the side of the road.

We had a feeling that readers would be outraged by the article. They should be outraged at the folks who like to see Tharp as the victim here. But some of the outrage has been directed at us, and for all the wrong reasons.
One letter-writer was appalled at us for glorifying these women. But I think we made it clear who was doing the glorifying. We even called the glorifier in Europe and interviewed her.

And just today we received a scathing letter in defense of Tharp. "What makes you think she killed her daughter?" the person asked. We weren't the ones who determined that. It was a jury of her peers.

As messengers, we're used to being attacked and shouldn't be surprised. But I sure do wish readers would first understand the message before swinging that ax.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Comments and complaints

I've received several calls from readers eager to thank us for publishing Scott Paulsen's weekly column. A couple of those calls came from women experienced in raising chickens - the subject of his second column.

Scott is a talented writer. I've been reading one of his books, "Cow Tipping." All of the pieces in that book were originally written for radio and were meant to be recited on air. As a result, the writing has a natural flow to it; you can hear his voice as you read.

I can guarantee that not all of our readers will like his column. In fact. I'm sure some will hate it, just as some readers despise Beth Dolinar, or Byron Smialek, or John Steigerwald.

We in the newspaper business are accustomed to being stuffy and condescending; you know, looking down at the rabble from our ivory tower. Paulsen's background is radio, where disc jockeys once competed to be the most juvenile and offensive. He retains some of his edginess. The easily offended are bound to bristle.

But we like to try new things here.