The development of the functionality that allows commenting on newspaper websites has been a boon—for conversation and the First Amendment—but often a bust for readers seeking substance and civility.
For example, a few weeks ago my wife and some colleagues had an op-ed piece run in a newspaper. I suggested that she not read the online comments, at least not without first taking some Maalox. Just as we all would have guessed, the online offerings, all anonymous, were a mixture of thoughtful musings (a couple) and misinformed ranting (the bulk).
Having spoken with many newspaper folk over the years, I know that they are conflicted about the conversational beast that they have unleashed. And for me, I’ve wondered about the propriety of, say, virulent racism on the pages of some of our most respected newspapers. Sure, some people have always held views like that, but they have never before had the chance to tout them under the banner of The New York Times or The Washington Post. Is this the best we can do? Really?
This week we got the strange and happy coincidence to observe the next steps taken by two newspapers in regard to online comments. Each is set out in an essay written by the newspaper’s editor. I’m not sure what the different reactions mean, but maybe you have an opinion.
The more detailed essay comes today from the Arizona Republic’s Randy Lovely. He is very up-front about his concerns over online commenting, and he says the Republic aims to do something about it.
The Republic’s response is that anonymous comments will no longer be permitted. Instead, he says, “Beginning today, azcentral users wishing to comment on any of our blog posts will need to do so through the use of a personal Facebook account. Ultimately, in the next couple of months, the same technology will be in place for all articles on the site.”
For those (like me) who fear that the Facebook option may be too limiting, Lovely points out that 81 percent of Phoenix adults have Facebook accounts. Of course, the Republic is a statewide newspaper, so I’m not sure that fills the bill. But we’ll see. I’m cautiously pleased that the newspaper has decided to act.
Also today, we read that The New York Times is changing its comment policy. Its approach, described by Executive Editor Jill Abramson, sounds much more like a tweak. (I wrote about The Times’ new editor last June.)
Absent from Abramson’s essay is any concern over the degradation of comments. But that may be due to the fact that The Times does not permit anonymous remarks—and that has made all the difference.
Now if we could just get newspapers to deep-six their hellish reliance on pop-up advertising. But that’s a fight for another day.
What do you think about online commenting? Is it a valuable part of news reporting, one that we have grown used to and that we value? Or could you live without it, anonymous or not?
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