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Zach Myers’ soft, beckoning smile jumped out at readers from Page 8 of Saturday’s Kansas City Star.

The vitality of that smile — the glimmer in those happy eyes — stood in stark, awful contrast, however, to the news that accompanied the photo: Myers, a 16-year-old junior at Olathe Northwest High School, had died from injuries he suffered in a car crash last Wednesday.

Zach

The story, which did not bear a by-line, said Zach had been in a vehicle with two other boys; that a head-on collision had occurred on Iowa Street in Olathe about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1; that neither of the other boys nor the woman driving the other vehicle suffered serious injuries 

The story said that Zach, in addition to being a student at Northwest High, attended the Millcreek Center, a career and technical school in Olathe. The story quoted a statement from the district that described Zach as a well-liked student “with a caring heart whose wit and charm touched many lives.”

As far as it went, the story was satisfactory. But it left so many questions unanswered. 

Not just unanswered, but, worse, apparently unasked.

As a former reporter, as a parent, as a curious human being, I wanted to know more. 

For example, were the boys in school that day? And, if so, why were they out driving on the street at 10:30 a.m.? Where, exactly, did the crash occur? Was speed a factor? Were drugs or alcohol involved? Did one of the vehicles cross over into the path of the other? Were the occupants of both vehicles wearing seatbelts?

The Star’s story addressed none of those questions. 

It’s not every day that the life of a beaming, 16-year-old student is snuffed out in the Kansas City area, and when it does happen, in my view, it deserves more than a cursory story from the area’s leading news-gathering force.

Readers should expect a lot more than what they got on Page 8 of Saturday’s paper.

So, I set out to expand the record and set it as straight as I could. Here’s what I did and what I found. 

:: I checked the school calendar, which indicated school was in session that day.

:: I called the school district public relations office to verify that school was in session and to try to find out why the boys might have been out on the streets. I was told that the district spokesperson was not in but that someone else would call me. That was about 9 a.m. I haven’t heard back.

:: I went to Mapquest and discovered that Iowa Street is a north-south street that runs from Santa Fe, near downtown Olathe, to just south of 119th Street, west of Woodland.

:: I called the police department and spoke with Sgt. Johnny Roland, police spokesman. 

Roland said he believed the boys were on their way from Millcreek Center, near downtown Olathe, to Northwest, which is about five miles from Millcreek, at College Boulevard and South Lone Elm. He said Iowa, a logical route for the trip north, was a two-lane street, where cars parked on either side.  

Roland said the crash was under investigation and that he had not seen a report. Knowing the street, he said he could understand how a head-on crash could happen there, but he said he didn’t know if either vehicle crossed over.

He also said he did not know what kind of car the boys were in; if Zach or the other boys — or the woman driving the other vehicle — were wearing seatbelts; and if excessive speed was a factor. When I asked him if drugs or alcohol were involved, he said, “I don’t believe so.”

:: I called the Myers’ home in Lenexa. At first, I spoke with Zach’s mother, Kimberly Myers. I explained to her who I was and what I was doing, extended my sympathy and asked her if she was willing to talk about the crash. Before turning the phone over to her husband, John, she told me that Zach had been in the back seat of the vehicle and that he had been wearing a seatbelt.

When John Myers, a 21-year- veteran of the Olathe Fire Department, got on the line, I again offered my sympathy and explained who I was and why I was calling. We talked — amicably, I thought — for about five minutes.

He said all three boys were wearing seatbelts and that the other two suffered only scrapes and bruises. Like Sgt. Roland, that he didn’t know what kind of vehicle the boys were in. The other boys were classmates, he said, but he didn’t believe Zach was particularly close friends with them. Myers said he had not spoken with family members of the other boys.

He said Zach customarily spent part of school-day mornings at Millcreek and then went to Northwest about 10:40 a.m. or 11. So, the timing of the crash, as well as the route they were taking, he said, would indicate they were on their way to Northwest. He said the crash occurred about a mile north of Millcreek. 

Myers said that Zach, whose survivors include an older brother, suffered a head injury, but Myers said he didn’t know how he struck his head or on what. I noted that it sounded rather flukish — that everyone else walked away from the wreck, while Zach, buckled in the back seat, suffered mortal injuries. 

Myers agreed, saying: “We’re curious as well. We’re at a loss as to how this could happen.”

He said that the family was eager to get answers to their questions, but, at the same time, he did not want the investigation to be rushed.

“Frankly, I want them to take their time,” Myers said. “I want them to investigate this thoroughly.”

So, the Myers family and other people who would like to know more about this tragedy must wait. I certainly hope The Star will follow up. The loss of what appears to be a fine, 16-year-old boy should not be allowed to drift out of public awareness without explanation.

*****

A post script is in order. 

As I said in the text, I thought my conversation with John Myers was amicable. He spoke with understandable sadness in his voice but never gave an indication he wanted to cut off the conversation. Before we signed off, I again expressed my sympathy and sorrow on his behalf.

About an hour afterwards, however, I got a call from Officer Michael Bussell of the Lenexa Police Department who told me to stop harassing the Myers family. I told him that John Myers had spoken freely and had given me no indication that he wanted to end the conversation.

Bussell took my “information” — name, address, d.o.b., telephone numbers, blog address — and said that if I attempted to contact the Myers family again, I could be charged with harassment.

…Such is the lot of a blogger who dusted off his reporter’s hat and tried to satisfy his curiosity — and perhaps the curiosity of members of the public –about a case that got short shrift from “the paper of record.”

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The beauty of running a blog or a web site is getting to write or post whatever you want.

The flip side, for some bloggers and operators, is what might be called the scourge of the troll.

A troll is someone who anonymously (or pseudononymously) posts inflammatory, derogatory or downright ridiculous messages in public forums.

Fortunately, I don’t have that problem on JimmyCsays. Maybe it’s because I have relatively few readers. (I’m a teacher, and I tell people a full classroom is all the audience I need.) Maybe it’s because I have a sophisticated following. (Of course, that’s it!)

But it’s a big issue for a lot of  sites, including several local ones, and an op-ed column in Tuesday’s The New York Times explored the issue in depth.

Writer Julie Zhuo, a product design manager at Facebook, used her column to urge content providers to put their feet down and click the “delete” button on anonymous comments. She deplored trolling, essentially, as aberrant behavior under the cover of darkness. To me, she hit the nail on the head when she said, “…most trolls wouldn’t have the gall to say to another person’s face half the things they anonymously post on the Internet.”

She called on site operators to moderate their comments and forums and to do whatever they could to “improve the quality of engagement on your site.”

All of us bloggers and web site operators crave feedback and engagement, but we have varying views on how to best monitor and manage that engagement.

Being a relative newcomer (nine months) on the blogging scene, I did some research and solicited the views of others who have a lot more experience with anonymous comments than I. 

Here, then, are observations from Derek Donovan, readers representative at The Star; John Landsberg, operator of Bottom Line Communications (bottomlinecom.com); and Hearne Christopher of KC Confidential (kcconfidential.com).

Derek Donovan

Donovan hasn’t responded to my e-mails since I quoted an e-mail from him in which he tabbed me — a 36-year, former Star reporter and editor — as an “anti-Star blogger.” However, he has addressed the comments issue several times in his Ad Astrum blog.

Several months ago, he wrote that the No. 1 complaint he gets as readers rep is “about bad behavior” in the comments.

“It’s a Catch-22,” Donovan said. “People want to make their thoughts heard, but not many are willing to attach their real names to it, and there’s no way to force people to — especially in these days where so many are waking up to very real concerns about online privacy.

“So the imperfect system goes on. I know it’s frustrating, but I don’t see a better solution anywhere else. My personal hunch is that anonymous online comments may continue to exist around the Web, but fewer people will pay attention to them as time goes on. I know I never even glance at them any longer unless a reader points one out to me as problematic.”

John Landsberg

At Bottom Line, readers cannot directly post comments on the site. Instead they can send e-mail “feedback,” which John monitors and decides whether to publish.

I solicited John’s views in an e-mail, and this is how he responded.

“I will allow anonymous comments on my site because many journalists and very credible sources do not want to jeopardize their employment, but I will not simply allow trolls to come on and take cheap shots. To me, my site (and me) lose credibility when I allow some folks to simply spew personal venom.

“It is a tough call sometimes. I think anonymous comments can lead to some very honest discussions, but sometimes they can be destructive.  It is a balancing act.”

Hearne Christopher

Hearne, who, like me, is a former Star employee, has a particularly interesting situation at this time. With the help of a designer, he recently changed from a blog to a Web site.

(Disclosure: Hearne publishes a lot of my posts. My only requirement is that he include a tag line crediting JimmyCsays, where my posts almost always appear first. I receive no payment from him.)

Under Hearne’s former format, commenters could parachute in with virtually no restrictions or filters and say whatever they wanted and have their comments appear moments later.

Now, they have to register first, using their e-mail addresses (not displayed, of course) and establish a user name and password. Then, they have to write headlines for their comments, and they are limited to one paragraph. Granted, the paragraph can be as long as the writer pleases, but it does tend to reduce mush-mouthed rambling. Commenters can still uses pseudonyms, and most do.

Hearne doesn’t like the new comments format and has been prodding his designer to change it back to the old, fast-and-loose system.

In an e-mail, Hearne said: “Our comments section doubles as content for arguably some of our less sophisticated (but still important) readers.

“Filtering out comments robs those readers who find snarky retorts and opinions entertaining and/or informative. Believe it or not — and as writers we’d undoubtedly prefer not to — readers have told us on a number of occasions that they often find the comments more entertaining than the stories.

“So, rather than eliminate them as some who find them distasteful or insignificant suggest, our feeling is that the same standards apply to would-be comment killers as to the rest of the readership. If you don’t like something, don’t read it. In other words, turn the channel. It’s not like comments are required reading.”

Unlike bottomline.com and JimmyCsays, KC Confidential accepts paid advertising, and Hearne looks at the issue through a different lens. 

Since going to the new format several weeks ago, he said, “our traffic went down by nearly 20 percent. The comments themselves plummeted probably by 70 to 80 percent.”

Obviously, when the number of views goes down at his site, ads could follow suit. 

Yet, I believe — and I’ve told him this — that the designer did him a favor by making the commenters more accountable. I think the caliber of his site, as well as the caliber of the comments, is much improved and that his viewership numbers will rebound. 

He still gets some boring commenters who insist on writing three, four, five or more messages on the same post — more afterthoughts than genuine engagement in many cases — but, overall, the tone is not as reckless and ugly as it frequently was.    

My posts have been — and continue to be — the object of some vitriolic messages on Hearne’s site, but that’s not the reason I favor a more restrictive comments environment, at his site or elsewhere.

To put it simply, I’m in favor of conversation, personally and online, that is as substantive and high-road as possible.

I side with Julie Zhuo, who said: “Raising barriers to posting bad comments is…a smart first step. Well-designed commenting systems should also aim to highlight thoughtful and valuable opinions while letting trollish ones sink into oblivion.”

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Today I want to send out a big plum to The Star’s Kevin Collison for his A-1 story Wednesday on the city acknowledging that it will be subsidizing the Power & Light District to the tune of $10 million to $15 million for the foreseeable future.

This wasn’t a “gotcha” story, however; it was a “that’s-the-way-it-is” story. And it’s been developing for a couple of years. The city’s subsidy, as the story pointed out, was $4.8 million in 2008, $11.5 million last year and is projected to be the same this year. So, the trend has not been good.  

I also want to applaud Collison, The Star’s development reporter, for the tone that he took. It wasn’t like, “Ah, see there, the city screwed this up horribly.” He pointed out that the revenue projections were overly optimistic, and then, of course, along came that thing called the Great Recession.

The story is devoid of “the-sky-is-falling” comments, as it should be. The vast majority of people realize that the Power & Light District has been a great thing for Kansas City. After decades of looking at dilapidated buildings and crumbling sidewalks downtown, we can now take pride in our downtown. From the entertainment standpoint, we stack up well against several other midwestern cities, including St. Louis and Louisville. We are a few steps behind places like Indianapolis and Denver, but at least we’re within shouting distance. 

Did the Cordish Co., the developer, cut a fat hog here? Probably. But what were city officials supposed to do — drive a ridiculously hard bargain and watch Cordish take its proven model (see Baltimore and Louisville) somewhere else? We needed them more than they needed us. So, it’s done, and, as City Councilwoman Deb Hermann said in the story, “Regardless of what the projections were, we need to make it a success.”   

We Kansas Citians like to look over our shoulders at Omaha and try to gauge if it is catching up with us and — God forbid — if it has a chance to surpass us. Well, I’ll tell you, without the Power & Light District, we would have Omaha at our side, and we’d probably be glancing back, with concern, at Lincoln — the proud home of the newest member of the Big Ten Conference.

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