Improve this post with comments

My publisher sent me several emails over the weekend about complaints about hateful, invective, acidic and just generally mean-spirited reader comments on our newspaper Web sites.

And the comments in question met all those tests - and then some. They had already been removed for the most part after being flagged by users. But one thinks publishers have better ways to spend Saturday nights? Sort of emphasizes the scope of the problem.

While the emails he received were about specific comments, questions are being raised anew about newspaper comments in general, one of the recurring (Oh, not that again) debates on journalism blogs.

Comments-as-bad has been catching fire as an issue for awhile with internal uneasiness at newspapers across the country about the often sordid area at the bottom of stories. And many readers, too timid, perhaps, to click "suggest remove" links next to offending comments, are buttonholing newspaper executives at social events.

It's not a trivial issue. We get over 1,200 comments a day 24/7 and the number is growing. Managing unwanted comments and commenters is an increasing large time sucker. Some stats are here for knoxnews/GoVolsXtra sites.

But when the queens of rumor-mongering and snarky say they've seen enough, well, that's red hot coals to cook up the debate.

On July 21, Sheila McClear of Gawker.com in the provocatively titled post  laid down the argument "Why Newspapers Shouldn't Allow Comments:"

You could argue that newspapers should rigorously vet and moderate their comments, or at least require them to use their full names. I'd argue that this is a silly misuse of their time; I'm not suggesting that newspapers should actively patrol their comments, like this and some other web sites do. (We're a blog; comments are in our blood.) I'm suggesting they get rid of them altogether. (This doesn't include the blog sections of various papers, which the NYT and Washington Post are stuffed full of.)

Newspapers have more important things to do than worry about comments--like, say, report the stories that blogs so desperately need in their 24-7 quest for content!
And Mike Masnick at TechDirt on Friday agreed in part with Gawker's analysis that comments are "dumb" but blamed the newspapers for not engaging with the commenters:

There's no indication that anyone at most newspapers read the comments. The authors of the articles rarely, if ever, respond to people in the comments. There's little to no engagement or discussion. So, instead, the comments just become a way for readers to vent. Just tossing up comments and thinking you've created a community is a mistake -- but that doesn't mean newspapers shouldn't enable comments. It just means they should do so in a more intelligent manner.
And On the Media, produced by public radio station WNYC did a three-parter that aired on Friday.

Bob Garfield and Ira Glas on the dark side of commenting:



Lee Siegel has a battlefront account:



And Roanoke Times editor Carole Tarrant argues that newspapers can't be online without reader comments, but have a responsibility to keep the conversation civilized.



Not everyone is backing away from the idea that comments enhance.

Derek Powazek in "This is Not a Comment" said the Bob Garfield/Ira Glass piece "came out sounding like another old journalist kvetching about how everyone on the net is an idiot." He continued:

Chastising all internet commenters for the actions of the loudest, craziest ones is no different that swearing off all newspapers because of Jason Blair.

Of course unmoderated anonymous comments on the internet can be incomprehensibly awful and frustratingly stupid. They can also be heartbreakingly sincere and shatteringly honest. That's because they're written by real people, and real people are complicated, messy, and weird.
Pat Thornton, writing at BeatBlogging.org, says he suspects the Gawker piece was a bit of "link bait." In a blog house that pays its writers based in large part on the traffic they generate, who would think of such a thing?

Thornton wrote:

The only reason I'm responding to this post is because many people within the journalism sphere -- especially people who aren't fond of many Web tools -- are going to use the Gawker post to justify not allowing people to comment.

If a news organization is not willing to cultivate comments and build a community, then, yes, comments may not be a great idea. But that's the real problem. Newspapers should care about building a community.
Commenting and comment management systems will evolve for newspaper Web sites. We're at 1.0 versions for managing large scale commenting. Some very large blogs also don't have comments either for these very same management issues. If we were Microsoft, we'd begin to get something useful by version 3.0.

The best of comments are often better than the stories, but under the bridges live the Trolls, the unhappy, the hateful, the racist and the sexist.

Sorry, Sheila, I don't think you'll see newspapers Web sites dump comments, but they will likely adapt and refine their approaches. And I think we will get to balance between a street brawl and Miss Manners.

At least that's the hope. For now, if you don't like them, try not reading them.

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