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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: When you comment on a newspaper site, it's public

By Tom Warhover
February 26, 2010 | 5:27 p.m. CST

Dear Reader,

There’s no such a thing as a private citizen.

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It’s the linguistic equivalent of a convenient pothole or a newspaper that doesn't publish.

They simply don’t exist.

To be a citizen is to act in a public way.

That’s why comments on ColumbiaMissourian.com require names. Commenting should be an act of citizenship, even if sometimes it's closer to graffiti.

I have a private life. I am a public citizen.

Earlier this week, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported that Fourth Ward council candidate Tracy Greever-Rice asked a Trib information technology employee to delete her account before announcing her candidacy. He did.

The decision should have been an editorial one, according to the Tribune’s managing editor, Jim Robertson. The newsroom decision would have been to keep the comments online.

I would have made the same call regardless of who was doing the asking.

I’ve written columns years ago that make me cringe now. I’ve been quoted in many publications. I’ve Tweeted (rarely) and I’ve written on my Facebook page (even more rarely).

My presumption in each case has been that it’s public, and will be forever.

A central purpose of newspapers has been archival. A historian can go to the archives and find a snapshot of Columbia from a day or decade ago.

So can anyone else, often right through the laptop.

Has the role changed as we’ve entered the digital age?

In recent years, I have been asked to remove articles, names and comments from ColumbiaMissourian.com or VoxMagazine.com.

This week a woman asked me to remove a photo.

A while back, an alpaca farmer who moved away from Columbia wanted me to take down a lovely feature on him because of a growing anti-alpaca movement in the country of his new homestead. (Who knew?)

I didn’t want to hurt either person.

But I didn't delete the photo or story.

In one sense, they couldn’t have been removed anyway.

As Rob Weir, the Missourian’s director of digital development, notes, “Google, Bing and other search engines constantly crawl the Internet and capture/cache data from Web sites.”

Clicking "post" online is like hitting the button to start the print presses. Once it's done, there's no going back.

It's always out there somewhere.

There is also a larger principle at stake.

A digital newspaper should be, like its print cousin, the first and roughest cut at history. Collectively, all those little things – a photo here, a classifieds listing there – create a picture of a moment in time.

Comments are part of that picture, and have been since the first letter to the editor was published.

More important to me is maintaining the sense of public purpose and public action in a newspaper.

As individuals, we can guard our private lives as vigorously as we choose. As citizens, we can act publicly.

And a newspaper publishes.