YOU’D THINK A FLOOD of attention nationwide paid to a Hudson business might benefit the enterprise, regardless of the tone. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? But Chris Wagoner, the owner of the Union Street Guest House, may not see the upside of the exposure his establishment received earlier this week, first from the New York Post and then from a crowd of anonymous critics on the web, the kindest of whom limited their comments to ridicule.
The Post initiated the episode with an entry Monday, August 4 in the online edition of its popular Page Six celebrity news column. The Post said the Union Street Guest House has a policy of charging a $500 “fine” to wedding parties that book rooms for their guests if a guest posts a negative comment about the Union Street Guest House online. The money would be returned if the comment was removed.
The guest house has a website, but on Monday afternoon, about 12 hours after the story was posted, the offending policy had been removed. Or maybe it was just too complicated for people of a certain age to find. By then it didn’t matter, anyway. Major news networks had picked up the story, and the Post and the online review site Yelp.com were swirling with condemnations and bogus images like an apartment building destroyed by a bomb that purported to be the guest house.
Defenders of the guest house–there didn’t seem to be many–and later Mr. Wagoner said the whole guest house policy on fines had been meant as a joke and then left in place when it should have been removed. Whatever the origins of policy, its authors had no control over public perceptions of it by midday Monday and no effective way to respond. It’s hard to say with precision how the term “gone viral” is best defined, but this seems like a textbook case of a story gone viral, at least by Columbia County standards.
It was also humbling, though not surprising, to watch this local story balloon into a controversy that put Hudson on the national map for a few hours. Small newspapers may dream of publishing stories that generate so much attention, but that’s not in the nature of what we do. There was something alluring about the reaction to the story: the engagement of the audience. In this business, we’d like more of that.
We’d not only like it, our fate as community news gathering organizations hangs on whether we can reassemble what we do to make ourselves an essential service on your smartphone, tablet or computer. Engaged readers are likely to buy the paper as subscribers or at the newsstand (and undoubtedly in full digital editions in the near future), and we hope you’re willing to purchase goods and services of our advertises. We survive on money from advertising and paper sales.
But reinventing ourselves raises new questions we haven’t yet answered like: To what degree does anonymity online feed the engagement we desire? The source of messages slamming the Union Street Guest substituted made-up online identities for real names. Online that’s common, but the policy of this newspaper rests on the antiquated notion that letter writers should accurately identify themselves just like reporters put bylines on their stories. We check by calling each writer to confirm he or she wrote the letter.
That’s a time-consuming and costly process, which means it runs counter to the fast-and-cheap-equals-better priorities of digital media age. But the value in requiring those who comment to identify themselves is that it makes their public discourse more civil regardless of the topic. Online it’s tempting to connect only with people who like us and share our views, and if we communicate at all with others what’s to deter us from putting them down from behind a shield of anonymity?
Anonymity has its uses, but it is the opposite of civic engagement. And as desirable as it sounds when you think of the sheer number of readers suddenly present when a story goes viral, the relevance of the audience is an illusion.
The Post hasn’t created hotel rooms in a county that has few accommodations. Page Six has no stake in Columbia County. Aware of the consequences, the paper risked nothing by exploiting a foolish statement. Mr. Wagoner has apologized online. Who knows if it will repair the damage to his business. For Page Six it’s all in a day’s work. But that’s not journalism, it’s bullying.