Archive for March, 2008

New terms of service on MonroeTalks.com

Monday, March 31st, 2008

We posted new “terms of service” this week for MonroeTalks.com, our social networking Web site.
They aren’t much different from the original terms, which have been used since the site debuted last June. The biggest difference is that they’re shorter and easier to read — more written for regular folks than for lawyers.
Our basic principle remains the same: This is the community’s Web site, and we want the users to moderate themselves.
Terms of service There are now more than 2,000 people registered to use MonroeTalks.com, and about 500 of them are regular talkers. In addition, thousands more visit the site every day to check out the conversation — totaling more than 1 million page views a month.
We’ve had exceptional good luck for the first nine months of MonroeTalks.com. Use of the site has grown dramatically and continues on a steady upward curve. And while there have been a few incidents, for the most part the users have been responsible in their posts on the site.
Before rewriting the terms of service, we asked users of MonroeTalks.com for their suggestions. There were many good comments and several were used in the final version.
Most of the discussion involved how aggressively we should moderate the forums.
As on all Internet talk forums, it’s easy for discussions to veer off the topic. One person changes the subject, or flirts a little, or gets personal in an attack on another user. Before you know it, there have been pages of comments that don’t resemble the original topic.
The problem is obvious. If you were drawn to a topic such as “Should Michigan have another primary,” or “What can I do to fight the gas prices,” you don’t want to have to dig through Sam and Suzie flirting online or Joe and Pete insulting each other to get to the next serious post.
On the other hand, that’s part of what an open discussion forum is all about. It’s a lot like the talk at dinner during the holidays, when there are lots of cousins and nieces and uncles gathered around the table. Good luck trying to keep the conversation on track.
We did decide to add a rule that says, “Try to keep your posts on topic as much as possible.” But you can’t make a rule against twists and turns in a conversation. Sometimes one thing makes you think of another, and then another, and the new direction may be better than the old one.
Others wanted us to get more specific in defining what is in good taste and what violates community standards of decency.
Sorry, but it’s not possible to provide a distinct definition. The Supreme Court can’t do it; what makes folks think we can. This is how the rule reads, and it’s the best we can do:
“Please be responsible. Self-moderate, remembering that this is a family Web site. Don’t post content you wouldn’t want your 13-year-old child or your mother to view. That includes profanity, nudity and lewdness.”
Some people wanted us to add a chat room, or a separate category for socializing. We considered it. But it seemed obvious that wouldn’t stop people from socializing while commenting on any topic. And that’s part of the value of an open community forum — everyone can join in the fun.
There seemed to be a clear majority who like MonroeTalks.com basically the way it is. We agree. That’s why the changes are more in readability than in substance.
My favorite line on the MonroeTalks.com conversation came from “the nosh.” His suggestion: “Dan, go back to your desk…” In other words, leave us alone to moderate ourselves.
Nosh, that’s my preference, too. I hope the new terms of service will help.

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Here are the rules for posting, taken from the terms of service:

  • Please be responsible. Self-moderate, remembering that this is a family Web site. Don’t post content you wouldn’t want your 13-year-old child or your mother to view. That includes profanity, nudity and lewdness.
  • Any content you post on MonroeTalks.com must be your original work, or you must have authorization from the copyright owner. Do not attempt to impersonate another individual.
  • Do not post content that defames or invades the privacy of an individual. Keep your disagreements civil. No harassing or intimidating others. Disagree with another person’s views – don’t attack the person.
  • Keep your ranting to a minimum. Take a deep breath, count to 10.
  • Try to keep your posts on topic as much as possible.
  • Content that promotes racism, bigotry, homophobia, hatred or physical harm to any group or individual will not be tolerated.

Easter in Brooklyn

Monday, March 24th, 2008

It’s amazing how far you can travel in a day.

My wife and I left Monroe County Friday afternoon just as the snow was starting to fall. We arrived in Brooklyn (as in the borough of New York) at about 11:30 p.m., to spend Easter weekend with our son’s family.

It comes as no surprise to anyone that Monroe and  Brooklyn are miles apart – figuratively as well as literally.

Some of the differences we noted this weekend:

- We took our 2-year-old granddaughter to an Easter Egg hunt at a nice little park right under the Brooklyn Bridge with a commanding view of the Wall Street skyline across the East River. Only one problem – several thousands kids stood in line longer than us, so the 50,000 eggs were gone long before we reached the park. With more than 2.5 million people, Brooklyn would be the fourth largest city in America if it wasn’t part of New York City. They needed a lot more than 50,000 eggs Saturday morning. 

- On a walk in Prospect Park, near our son’s home, we noticed a bag with a sign on the outside – free dog toys. Would you see that in Monroe? Here in Michigan, we have garage sales. In Brooklyn, they just put anything they don’t want out on the sidewalk. It’s picked up within hours. That’s how our son furnished his apartment. It’s recycling elevated to an art form.

- We attended Easter services at a Methodist Church just a short walk from our son’s apartment. They started the Lord’s Prayer with, “Our mother and father who art in heaven…” Makes perfect sense to me, but I have a feeling there are some folks in Monroe who would have trouble getting their heads around that.

- On a similar note, there were anti-war or anti-Bush signs in many windows on our son’s street. I don’t know about the rest of Brooklyn, but there’s not much doubt about the politics of that neighborhood.

- On a lighter note: Daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths were blooming in almost every front yard in the neighborhood. As mentioned earlier, we left Monroe County in a snowstorm.  

We’re glad to be home, despite the snow on the ground. There are 35,000 people per square mile in Brooklyn; 2,400 per square mile in the city of Monroe. And we live outside the city because we don’t like crowds.

Barack Obama’s speech a rarity in politics

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

Whatever you thought of Barack Obama before his Philadelphia speech on race, you’ve probably changed your mind at least somewhat.

I’ve interviewed a lot of politicians, from county commissioners to senators, from township clerks to governors. I’ve heard a lot of speeches.

One of the rarest commodities – even among the very best public servants - is courage.

I don’t mean the courage to sling mud at your opponents, or to lambast the media. There’s lots of that kind of courage in politics.

I mean the courage to really say what you believe, even if it’s not popular. The courage to take a stand on a tough issue that people really don’t want to talk about, even if it means alienating voters on both sides.

Obama’s speech was elegantly written and delivered. That’s what we would expect. That’s what got him this far.

What was unexpected was the candor, the honesty, the willingness to say things that both radical blacks and middle class whites didn’t want to hear. There still is racism in this country. But it’s an amazing country that has made incredible progress in civil rights, and that can make even more progress if we work harder at it. Both points are true.

Obama undoubtedly lost votes at both extremes. But he made me sit up and take notice, and apparently I’m not alone.

Most political candidates, when facing election or re-election, try to figure out what voters want to hear – they go to great lengths and expense to get it right – then feed it back to them.

Telling what they don’t want to hear is very rare.

My wife and I watched the speech together, on YouTube.  As it ended, she said, “What’s the big deal. He just said the truth.”

Sometimes she can be so exasperating. She was right.

But it is a big deal. He said the truth, on an issue where few Americans want to hear the truth.

There’s history, and then there’s history

Monday, March 17th, 2008

History, as we usually think about it in the United States, has about a 500-year range.

That’s if you go all the way back to Columbus.

I was struck recently by two books that provided a bit more perspective. I’ve been reading some of the stories in the Cadfael Chronicles series. The novels by Ellis Peters are set in 12th century England, built around the lives of monks in a monastery in Shrewsbury.

Part of the fascination has been learning about everyday life in rural England 850 years ago. There were castles, knights in armor and maidens in distress, but there also were ordinary, hard-working millers and bakers, farmers and sheep herders.

Then last week I stopped an an airport bookstore to find something to read on the flight home. I picked up Genghis, Birth of an Empire, a novel about the early life of Genghis Khan. I was about to put it down and move on when I realized it was set in nearly the same years as the Cadfael Chronicles.

A book about life on the Mongolian steppes in the year 1200; a book about life in rural England in the year 1143. I couldn’t resist.

It’s been a couple days since I put Genghis down, and I’m still troubled. I’m not sure what author Conn Iggulden had in mind, but I’m guessing that he set out to demonstrate the combination of lifestyle and circumstances that led to one of the most ruthless and ambitious minds in military history.

Genghis Khan’s childhood was hard, so hard that it’s virtually incomprehensible to us today. It was a world far, far away from the peaceful countryside of England, and it bred hard men – warriors who were unstoppable when sweeping across the plains of Asia – and eventually Europe. The violence is difficult to read about – we simply don’t have anything to compare with it, even in the midst of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I’m not a historian. I wouldn’t want to try to explain the impact that Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes or the Catholic monks of the dark ages had on the development of modern society.

I just know that reading Cadfael and Genghis gives me a tiny bit more perspective – and a sense of awe at how much more went on before us than we normally consider.

In the sweep of history, our wars of today will be minor footnotes. At the same time, for the brave soldiers who are fighting and for their families waiting at home, history is unimportant. What’s happening right now matters most.

Wanted: Parents who want to help with Web site

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

We’re looking for a few good people – maybe one, maybe several – who would be interested in helping us develop a really good parenting Web site.

We have a print publication called Monroe Parent, with a companion Web site, www.Monroeparent.com. We’re working on improvements to the print publication and want to dramatically improve the Web site, too (if you go to it now, you’ll see that it’s mostly broken, awaiting its rebirth).

There are a lot of good “Mom” or “Parenting” Web sites developing around the country, and we’d like for ours to be right there with the best. One thing it needs is a “champion” or a group of “champions” who would give it the care and nurturing it needs. These folks would lead a blog or forum discussion, surf the net for useful links to good articles and Web sites, and work with our staff to pull the best content from our print publications.

The idea is to give parents a place to exchange ideas – maybe in a slightly more orderly way than on MonroeTalks – and find good information about parenting – with a local flavor.

The “discussion leader” would need to be knowledgeable enough to pose good questions and steer the conversation, but would not have to be an expert with a degree in child development. The work could be done at home at any hour.

We’re not talking about a full-time job – just a few hours a week. We haven’t decided yet what we’ll pay, if anything. It depends on how many people show interest and how much interest and how involved they get in the site, beyond just blogging/discussion leading.

Anyone who is interested should contact me at danshaw@monroenews.com or at 734-240-5749. If you’re not sure whether you’re interested, call or e-mail me and we can talk about it.

Power shifting from government, the press

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

I just returned from a visit to our nation’s capitol (okay, I never really went to the capitol, just to suburban Virginia) , where I attended a seminar on interactive community journalism.

That’s a fancy term for what we do with MonroeTalks.com, our social networking site that is designed to give area residents a place to gather in local cyberspace.

I was there to talk about MonroeTalks.com – why we did it and how we manage it. The answer to the first question is obvious – because we saw a need and decided we’d better fill it before someone else did.

People are aching to connect with others and to be part of a community. With our society changing so rapidly, there’s much less sense of community in the old-fashioned sense. People sit at their computer (or in front of their television) instead of sitting on the front porch with their neighbors.

MonroeTalks.com provides an on-line environment for hanging over the back fence with your neighbors – figuratively speaking.

It’s a very different function than what we’ve traditionally filled at the Monroe Publishing Co. But I suspect it’s only one of many we’ll fill in the future, as our media world changes.

I was struck by one comment by the seminar moderator, Mary Glick of the American Press Institute.

Some of the seminar members were questioning taking newsroom resources away from covering the “news of record” in their towns – like city or county agencies – so they could cover emerging new topics.

Mary said something like this:

“Keep in mind that in our society the locus of power is shifting away from government – to the people. A case in point: Our country is at war, but not with another government – with terrorists – a group of people.”

She didn’t continue to make the obvious next point – that the locus of “information” power also is shifting from our monolithic newspapers of yore to a very pluralistic future with many news voices.

So as journalists we’re living with two shifts – the geopolitical power shifting to the people – necessitating our re-thinking how we cover government in a democracy – at the same time the information power base is shifting to the people – any of whom can start their own blog and/or Web site.

The two shifts are most certainly related.

Anyone can report on city or county or state government on their own blog, on their own Web site. Readers have many, many potential places to look for information. That makes community activists more powerful, and it makes both government and the traditional press less powerful.

We still plan to make the Monroe Evening News the best source of local news and information for many, many years. That’s still our primary focus.

But in the meantime, www.monroenews.com and www.MonroeTalks.com, as well as www.HomesPlusMonroe.com and www.MonroeParent.com and www.Letstalktigers.com are just the beginning of the online sources of information we’ll be providing.

We’re in a race to continue to be Monroe County’s primary source of information – where ever you want to find it.

Perspectives on Ohio and Michigan

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

Lunchroom conversations can be revealing.

An interesting one started this week when I pointed out a headline in the Detroit Free Press that read, “Sister state,” referring to Ohio.

Who in Michigan, I asked, thinks Ohio and Michigan are sister states? Maybe Michiganders consider Ohio to be a black sheep second cousin, but not a sister.

When I think of sisters, I think of a loving, caring relationship, with maybe a little sibling rivalry but generally warm and fuzzy feelings.

How often do Michigan residents describe Ohio in warm, fuzzy terms. I’m afraid it’s not sibling rivalry – more like good old fashioned, serious, stick-in-the-eye kind of rivalry.

As I’ve noted on this blog, I’m caught in the middle of it, with a daughter who attended UM and a wife who attended OSU. Between them, it’s a good natured rivalry. But even they wouldn’t describe the two states as “sisters.”

My lunchroom question rattled around the room, as several people responded with perspectives of their own. Then Deb Saul, editor of The Evening News, tossed in a different wrinkle.

“I don’t get Ohio,” she said. “Look at all the crazy place names. They’re insane.” (or something to that effect).

That, of course, led to a discussion of some of Michigan and Ohio’s more peculiar place names – a competition of another kind. As she finished her lunch and headed back to work, Deb turned to me and said, “I’ll send make a list and send it to you.”

Her tone seemed to be saying, “Take a look at this list and you’ll agree…”

So, here’s her list of crazy places in Ohio:

Buzzard Roost
Tobasco
Toots Corners
Iron City
Uno
Babbtown
Bald Knobs
Thelma
Youba
Turkey Foot
Turkey Neck
Clyde
Wacker Heights
Wilberforce
Knockemstiff

She added this comment: My point is: Are these names that would entice you to move there and settle down? I don’t mean to offend any Ohio fans. But they just don’t have the music of Petoskey, Port Huron, Cadillac, Charlevoix, Ontonogon.