Kent State volunteers pack grocery bags assistance recipients during the food distribution at Dix Stadium in December. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

A different way to think about 2020 in Portage County

Reflections on The Portager, a ‘very online’ year and lessons to carry forward

Ben Wolford
Dec 30, 2020 · 8 min read

Journalists everywhere are writing year-end reflections, and I also feel compelled to write one for all the usual reasons.

Columns and “listicles” about the “biggest stories of 2020” provide a sense of closure and finality that doesn’t occur in nature, unless you’re particularly attuned to the harvest and the revolutions of the planet.

New Year celebrations and the accompanying “top 10” articles and newspaper editorials are bookends we use to order our lives and the events that comprise them. Birthdays and anniversaries serve the same purpose. They keep the spines straight and the authors alphabetized while ensuring nothing slips off the shelves into oblivion.

But, look, I can read the room: Nobody wants to remember this year.

If ever there was a year to skip the pageantry of “reflections” and “recaps” — burn the library in a sense — it is 2020.

Let’s forget it ever happened, get drunk tomorrow night and spend Friday cooking sauerkraut and resolutions for a better 2021.

And yes, we should absolutely do that. All of it. But let’s at least draw some conclusions first. Error is progress, after all. So is success, which we’ve had more of in the past year than received wisdom suggests.

I’d like to look at 2020 in Portage County through the lens I’m most familiar with: The Portager. Since we cover the local goings on, I suspect you may find my learnings relatable. Some of them have to do with the subjects of our coverage, but most, in a meta sort of way, deal with the way readers have engaged with our coverage. And insofar as the media (including social media platforms and publishers like The Portager) mediate most of your engagements with public life, the following observations from my vantage point in the nerve center of those engagements may well be vital, even necessary.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Facebook.

There is a high probability you found this column through Facebook, which means the Zuck-orithm decided you are disposed to click a story like this from me in your News Feed. If you aren’t reading this column because the Zuck-orithm did not distribute it on your News Feed or because the Zuck-orithm erred in its prediction that you would click, then you won’t benefit from any of the brilliant insights contained here. You are also unaware that I’m making silly faces at you.

There — before these words have even found their audience — a filtering has taken place. Henceforth there are two Portage Counties: the Portage County that read this column and the Portage County that did not.

Obviously, this column is relatively unimportant. But in combination with a various diet of other information, these filterings cleave divisions even among a community the size and shape of our 160,000-resident rectangle. Viewed from the Zucker-spective of node topography (to borrow the term from a local computer scientist I recently chatted with), we lose many of the conventional and observable topographic identifiers we may associate with ourselves.

For example, on Facebook your identity as a Rotarian from Rootstown who works at a bank in Ravenna and volunteers at your church may be subsumed by a more emotionally charged (and profitable for Faceboook) identity as a conspiracy-curious political ideologue who can’t help but share three memes a day. And this online identity may be completely unrecognizable to the people who know you personally.

Further, in a year when internet “selves” have replaced our physical presence in many social interactions, you may have even felt yourself conflating the two.

The combination of these two effects — the compartmentalization of our communities and the distortion of our identities — has left Portage County seeming ragged.

I use seeming deliberately here. Because although I’ve witnessed the worst parts of our nature erupt in the comments of local Facebook posts, I’ve also seen how ugly fighting can be mitigated and oriented toward constructive dialogue. And I’ve also seen how Facebook can be a starting point for developing ideas, organizing positive actions and gathering money or volunteers for the provision of care to those in need.

A phrase I often see on our Facebook page is, “Is there anything we can do to help?” It’s beautiful.

I’ve developed a few strategies for reducing divisions and vitriol. First, I pay Facebook to share our articles with a more diverse range of people. By default and for free, Facebook distributes content to those most likely to engage. This is what creates filter bubbles. To reach beyond those bubbles, you have to pay the messenger. I hold my nose and play the game.

Second, I actively engage with comments and delete comments that are inflammatory, based on disinformation or include memes (because I want to encourage original thinking). I encourage commenters to dial back or reconsider their positions and politely indicate that a thread of conversation doesn’t seem to be going anywhere useful, at which point most people lay off. Often when I delete a comment, I write to the commenter privately and explain why.

The emphasis is on creating a public information space that is put toward constructive use. Another way to do this (number three in this list of strategies) is by explicitly focusing on solutions and ways to help in the stories we cover. Other times, I go out of my way to highlight fundraisers, charity auctions and struggling small businesses that are not conventionally newsworthy. Some hard-boiled journalists would likely roll their eyes at me. But the old way of diagnosing problems and ignoring solutions doesn’t interest me. Journalists have the platform and perspective to assess and showcase avenues for positive change. Why waste it?

A fourth aspect of our approach is transparency, including transparency in language. A lot of the journalism-type language you read in traditional newspapers is actually designed (consciously and unconsciously) to obfuscate aspects of the reporting process and patch over elements of a story that are unclear or can’t be ascertained. Many of you have told us that Portager newsletters feel authentic. It’s because I’m deliberately trying to eradicate journalism-ese wherever it feels possible. (I do think this can be taken too far; for example, casual writing can feel tone-deaf in certain hard news stories.)

The fifth and most important strategy is not really a strategy at all: It’s The Portager itself.

How do you break down information filters and restore constructive discourse based on readers’ grounded identities? By building a new community forum explicitly for this.

Some will rightly argue that The Portager is also an information filter. The things happening in Portage County are mediated through our reporters and editor. They may further argue that Facebook is a better platform for constructive information sharing because it is more decentralized and offers the freedom to choose groups to belong to and friends to follow.

I disagree it’s better. Just look at the Facebook information where folks assure themselves that masks don’t work against coronavirus or that election fraud was widespread.

But even if you think this only reveals me to be a brainwashed leftist, you could still acknowledge that receiving a more diverse range of information sources may yet be useful. Since most of the information we learn about the world is mediated, and even first-hand information is subject to processing error (sample bias or confirmation bias, for example), then gathering more data points from high-quality sources (such as trained journalists) may help you more precisely triangulate reality.

So that’s what I’m thinking about at the end of this crazy year.

I’m sorry I spent so much of this column talking about social media, but in an internet-era plague it was inevitable. For many of us, Facebook was our primary interface. It’s important to reflect on how we use this tool and how this tool uses us.

It would not be accurate, however, to only talk about social media. Portagers are a resourceful people, and we found many ways to safely have fun this year. We have an extraordinary network of parks, which saw what I believe to be record traffic this year. Our small businesses and local governments adapted to the conditions and created opportunities for community, including Kent’s outdoor drinking area and contactless trick-or-treating throughout the townships. And of course, thousands of people marched in support of criminal justice reform and voted in this year’s election, with near universal mask usage and no significant surge in Covid-19 cases in the wake of those events.

As the vaccine reaches more people, I think life will gradually return to normal. At some point toward the end of 2021 or in 2022, we’ll suddenly realize that life feels like it used to feel. The normal rhythms will have returned.

We’ll find ourselves at the Randolph Fair hugging our friends and hearing the sound of crowds and laughter.

We’ll be watching a show at the Kent Stage and walking outside afterward into the crisp chill of winter in our little city, a satisfying ringing in our ears.

We’ll eat a hamburger in a bar, and there won’t be any plastic barrier between you and the slobbering drunk next to you and, far from annoyed, you’ll slap that guy on the back and sing Journey with him.

Here in the present, as I write this column in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 30, I find myself wondering if this reminder of our collective vulnerability has strengthened us in ways that will only reveal themselves in the years ahead.

The Portager serves a useful function here, too: as a vessel for shared remembering. Our reporters have documented the protests and precautions, the meetings and controversies and victories of this county since March 25, when we sent the first newsletter.

We’ll continue to build on this archive far into the future.

In just nine months, our readership has grown from a handful of friends and family to over 4,000 subscribers from all over Portage County. If you are among them, then you are part of a new and growing community.

The Portager community is not exclusive. If you’re a Portager, then you’re welcome here. And I don’t mean your internet avatar. I mean your true, authentic, creative self.

Our mission statement says that The Portager is a catalyst for ideas and action to help Portage County thrive. Notice that we’re just the catalyst. The ideas and actions are yours. So, what will we make of today? What will we make of tomorrow?

Ben Wolford is the editor and publisher of The Portager.

We’re the only locally owned news source covering Portage County, Ohio. Our mission is to help our community thrive. Subscribe here.

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