Since the earliest days of online commenting on newspaper websites, I’ve been an outlier. The idealistic expectation was that, by allowing and encouraging robust public dialog on their sites, newspapers would facilitate citizen interest and involvement in the issues of the day. Not to mention generating a few “clicks” for the papers’ cyber presence.
Another benefit, we were told (and by “we” I mean newspaper editors like me who were assured we had no choice in the matter), was that we could identify story ideas and potential sources by monitoring the online discussions.
I never thought that enough of those beneficial things would happen to make it worthwhile, and said so. For that I was chastised as a tech-resistant, future-denying, progress-impeding, anti-citizen troglodyte. Engagement, public outreach and a constructive universal forum were going to help save newspapers. Just you watch.
I did, and in my opinion it’s been a train wreck, hot mess, unholy disaster — whatever you call it, online commenting has been a migraine headache of dubious value. It has made newspapers partly culpable for the “post-truth” debacle of digital discourse. If you were to anonymously poll newspaper editors in America (ironically, anonymously is the only way most of them would answer), I wager that a majority would now agree that they would rather not be involved in online commenting.
There are good reasons why.
Commenting quickly devolved into, and still pretty much remains, a toxic dumping ground for anger, hate, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, intolerance, ad hominem attacks, bullying, shaming, threatening and generally vile rhetoric — mostly delivered from behind the protective veil of anonymity without accountability.
The sheer volume of online participation suddenly created the need for constant monitoring (or, even more time-sucking, pre-approval) to strip away the really horrific stuff. People who tried to create reasoned discussions were digitally shouted down and pilloried by the nameless hordes. It soon became necessary for papers to consider banning particularly egregious trolls.
All of this monitoring and curating and culling and banning required dedicated resources at a time when news organizations were slashing their reporting and editing staffs. Veteran journalists were dismissed by the thousands; online monitoring kept those left behind increasingly busy sluicing the sewers for an occasional gold nugget.
In recent years, the tide has begun turning. Some newspapers have changed their posting rules, eliminating anonymity, in some cases by requiring that comments be posted through Facebook. (Facebook used to be a safer place. The tenor of the recent election has, sadly, changed that to some extent.) Others newspapers have just stopped allowing it altogether. My colleague Neal Pattison, editor of the daily Herald in Everett, dropped commenting some time back and explained why in a letter to his readers. When I asked him recently how that was going, he said there was some initial backlash but no lasting impact.
When I bought the Methow Valley News, it was not allowing commenting on its stories. It still doesn’t. It’s not worth it, and I don’t have the time. Write a letter to the editor, with your name on it. Lots of people do.
Some people claim that eliminating, or not offering, online commenting restricts freedom of speech. Not so. Freedom of speech does not mean, and never has, that anyone is entitled say whatever they want in any forum they choose. The other part of the First Amendment — freedom of the press — protects the notion that those of us in what’s broadly described as “the media” can decide on our own content. Every information outlet makes those decisions daily.
I’m still in the minority when it comes to online commenting, subject to the scorn of the digirati. I may be fighting a losing war against incivility and divisiveness in the greater public discussion, but at least I’m not going to weaponize anyone else if I can help it.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I applaud and support Methownet.com’s recent decision to dramatically change posting rules on its community bulletin board. Even in the friendly Methow, the content there was too often brutally unfriendly. Too many people were turning what has become a valuable community resource into a festering combat zone. It was a courageous thing for Methownet.com to do, and I suspect that most valley residents appreciate it.
You might tell them that. Nicely.