Newspaper Hotline Has Some Readers Hot Under the Collar – Wall Street Journal

HUNTINGDON, Pa.—Since 1977, residents of this small Pennsylvania town have had a reliable soapbox in their local newspaper’s Opinion Line.

Anyone here with something to say can call into a hotline managed by the Daily News (circulation: 9,000). Each week, a copy editor transcribes the anonymous remarks before they are published on Saturday.

“If we want to keep this a beautiful area, let’s find somebody to clean up these deer carcasses,” one comment recently read.

Readers have opined on various topics: school-district buses (“real pieces of junk”); a junior high softball coach (“so helpful in maintaining the field”); and U.S. politics (“needs another man like J. Edgar Hoover”). Nearly 100 comments are usually left on the newsroom’s 1980s-vintage cassette recorder each week.

Everyone in Huntingdon reads the Opinion Line. But not everyone likes it. In fact, this has been among the quietest summers in Huntingdon history since a group of local business leaders pressured the feature onto a temporary hiatus that is set to end next month.


ENLARGE

Situated about 120 miles east of Pittsburgh, Huntingdon County has about 45,000 residents, along with tree-lined mountains and a cornhole tournament. In a community where everyone knows everyone’s business, the Opinion Line serves as a supplemental bulletin board, outrage outlet, Yelp review and confessional booth. Comments are limited to 150 words and are printed in the back of the paper, often after dispatches from a local murder trial and headlines like “Trinity Assembly of God hosts intern.”

Some residents can’t handle the word limit, said Becky Weikert, the paper’s managing editor. “They’ll get cut off and call back.”

Daily News editors typically don’t print messages that name residents or businesses. But people in positions that involve taxpayer money from any of the 67 municipalities in their coverage zone are fair game. Still, it is pretty easy for residents in the small towns where the paper circulates to figure out who the messages target.

“This is to the lady in Shirleysburg who had a yard sale last week. The stuff you sold me should have went in the garbage,” one reader commented.

During a recent drought, resident Michele Rupert collected rain runoff in a garbage bin to water her plants. Then she was reading the Opinion Line one morning when a notice leapt out: “There’s a woman in Petersburg who needs to get the garbage bin out of her yard,” it read.

“Oh my gosh, that has to be me,” thought Ms. Rupert. She put the trash bin away that night.

Controversy erupted last year when several central Pennsylvania “movers and shakers,” led by a local diner operator, launched a campaign to reform the feature, said Mrs. Weikert, claiming its negative content made Huntingdon residents look like “a bunch of rednecks.”

That prompted soul-searching at the Daily News. Editors tried tweaking the format, but that didn’t go well.

When the paper announced that December was a “season of good will” and only positive remarks would be published, the number of submissions plummeted. Instead of the usual 100 comments, one week they received only nine.

They ultimately stopped publishing the Opinion Line amid the uproar. But a survey found 60% of readers wanted the feature to stay as-is, and one loyal fan said she was “lost” without it.

The critics want the newspaper to start identifying the people behind the comments.

“We’re all for freedom of speech, but with freedom of speech comes accountability,” said Rick Walker, the owner of Top’s Diner and a leading opponent of the Opinion Line. His main gripe: anonymity allows nasty remarks to flourish.

Bruce Pergament, a car dealer who joined Mr. Walker’s campaign against the feature, said his stance on the Opinion Line came up during his two failed campaigns to be elected county commissioner.

Mr. Pergament stands by his own opinions. He ran for office to instill “strict Constitutional values” in the community, and a U.S. flag hangs in his office above a whiteboard that reads: “The government has NO money! It has your tax dollars.”

Huntingdon is still reeling from an economic downturn in 2012 that led to layoffs across the region, and Mr. Pergament thinks the Opinion Line keeps businesses from opening in town.

“We’re trying to build Huntingdon County. We’re trying to make it a more positive place,” Mr. Walker added. The Opinion Line critics said they weren’t upset with the feature because of specific comments about them or their businesses.

For their part, the Opinion Line editors highlight positive comments in bold typeface. One recent example: “Rosa Walker of Mount Union had her 100th birthday Saturday. An open house was held. I hope everyone had a delightful time.”

But being called out in the Opinion Line can be a harrowing experience.

When he came out last year, Travis Foster, 29 years old, started seeing more comments about gay rights in the Opinion Line. Some messages seemed to him to imply that people should avoid the convenience store where he worked.

Mr. Foster fought back with his own remarks, calling in messages like, “Nobody has the right to judge me.” Customers in his checkout line began asking if he was the guy they had read about. “It didn’t really bother me,” he said. “People would say, ‘Hey, you made the Opinion Line again.’”

Now he wants the feature back so he can keep taking on his detractors.

He’ll soon get his wish. The Opinion Line returns in September with new online features to try to quiet the protests. Comments will still be anonymous. But readers will be able to identify themselves on the Daily News website and respond. Readers will also be able to vote on whether they agree with a given comment.

It is a system Mrs. Weikert says won’t censor the paper but still allow frequent targets like Little League coaches to respond to potshots. She also hopes it stops rumors from spreading through the Opinion Line—such as the time a comment said a Golden Corral restaurant was coming to town when that wasn’t actually the case.

But mostly she is just ready for the paper’s most popular feature to return. Since the Opinion Line has gone silent, debates have emerged in the community that Mrs. Weikert knows readers are aching to comment on, like the new gas station on Route 26 that wants to sell beer.

“The Opinion Line is going to blow up about that,” she said.

Write to Erich Schwartzel at erich.schwartzel@wsj.com

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