Politics & Media
Aug 25, 2008, 08:54AM

Trolling Alone

In his famous book on social capital, political scientist Robert Putnam found that newspaper readership was the best indicator of community involvement. Now that many newspapers are going through rebranding paroxysms as they hemorrhage revenue and cut staff, the role of newspapers as social unifier is threatened. There's some hope that online communities can fill the void. Here an author argues that with the help of good journalism online communities can move beyond the meaningless rants and hyperbolic echo chambers they so often devolve into, potentially replacing newspapers as an active builder of community.

It's also hard to ignore that when conversations about the news occur on the Web, they often turn ugly -- or, at best, fail to advance the discussion beyond ranting and raving. Many news organizations have been struggling just to keep their online comments civilized -- let alone productive. I have been wondering if there's a way that journalists can play a role in improving these conversations -- for instance, by doing original reporting to corroborate or debunk what people are saying in these online conversations.

Evidence that local media can play a role in fostering community conversation can be found in newspaper history. David Paul Nord's fascinating book, "Communities of Journalism," for instance, describes many instances in which newspapers served as community forums, not just as one-way communicators of news and information. He describes the way newspapers enabled Philadelphians to share valuable information during a yellow fever epidemic in 1793. And how Chicago newspapers built a sense of community through letters to the editor.

Online communities have been around for decades, since before the World Wide Web. And anyone who has participated in successful online communities knows that they can build powerful interpersonal connections that transcend members' gender, racial or ethnic differences. Yet, there are also arguments - for instance, by Cass Sunstein in his book Republic.com - that online communities can foster isolation and division by enabling people to connect only with those whose characteristics and attitudes are like theirs.


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