Why Newspapers Get Commenting Wrong

Heres my comment.

Here's my comment.

Why do newspapers continue to shoot themselves in the foot (in this case it might be a head shot) when it comes to the Social Web?

Case in point: An op-ed in the Boston Globe yesterday by Douglas Bailey, a former reporter and media consultant.  Bailey wrote a scathing and surprisingly vague column about newspapers allowing readers to leave comments behind on Web stories.

Bailey claims the practice is “diminishing serious discourse beyond even talk radio’s worst examples.”  He argues that comments spread unverified information and promote misinformation.

Then – without any irony – he goes on to spread unverified information and promote misinformation to make his case against comments.  Here is the first instance:

“There’s the story of the reporter upset with his superiors for trimming several paragraphs from his article because of inadequate attribution, sourcing, or potential libel who simply logged on to his paper’s website under an assumed name and posted a rewritten version of the deleted material at the end of his own story, in the comments field. Apocryphal? Maybe. But how do we know it’s not happening all the time? If this reporter’s own editor deems the material problematic, why then give anyone free license to attach it to the story?”

Is this story true?  Impossible to know because there is no attribution.  Where did Bailey hear this anecdote?  Who is his source?  Did he check to make sure it was accurate?  Because to me it sounds like an urban legend – one of those rumors you read about on, you know, Internet forums.

Now on to the second instance:

“I recently contacted a blog that has apparently gained a reputation as an “authoritative source’’ on local news to point out an outrageously inaccurate – and easily verifiable – item posted on the site, attributed to one of its many “insiders.’’ The editor of the site conceded to me his “inside’’ information had actually come from an anonymous posting he saw on a newspaper website. If this wasn’t outrageous enough, this site has developed a following among traditional media reporters who apparently believe this blogger is wired and who regularly republish his missives unaware that his “exclusive’’ sources come from anonymous comments on their own websites.”

Why doesn’t Bailey name the blogger (another one of the reasons why Bailey says he hates comments is the anonymity)?  Why has he put “authoritative source” in quotation marks?  Is he quoting someone or another publication?  Of course, by not naming the blogger, there is no way to verify if this story is true.

So in a nutshell, Bailey has committed all of the sins he holds against commenting.

Now let’s talk about the practice of commenting.  Firstly, newspapers don’t have to allow anonymous commenting.  They can require people to leave their real names behind.  And even if they do allow anonymous commenting, they can moderate and remove offending or borderline posts with the click of a button.

Coincidentally, I just wrote about anonymous commenting on my Posterous stream.  There’s a court case occurring in Kentucky about a newspaper being sued for libel regarding an anonymous comment connected to one of its articles.  I’ll also note that I’m not a big fan of anonymous commenting because of how snarky it can get, but I do allow anonymous comments on HighTalk because I believe in open and frank debate (but I also reserve the right to delete any comment I don’t like).

Bailey, however, clearly doesn’t understand why comments on newspaper sites fail and why commenting on blogs usually succeeds.   It comes down to two things: monitoring and engaging.  Newspapers don’t want to do either – but bloggers usually do both.

Newspapers generally allow open commenting for one reason and one reason alone: they don’t want to expend the resources or capital necessary to monitor them.  It’s simply too much work.  As a result, they also don’t participate.  So newspaper sites engage in the odd practice of allowing free and open commenting without any moderation and without editors or reporters engaging and discussing the articles with readers.

There is power in participation.  Commenters are more civil when they know someone is there reacting to what they say.  I’ve been blogging since 2006 and have only deleted one comment (that wasn’t spam).  But I moderate and engage with the people who are kind enough to read and comment on what I’ve written.  I appreciate it – especially those who are bold enough to disagree with me.  I find I’m exposed to other viewpoints and learn from them.  And isn’t that the point of having comments?  To encourage this kind of dialog?  Otherwise, why have commenting in the first place?

So it isn’t the practice of commenting that Bailey should find so offensive – it should be the sloppy way newspapers use comments.  If you provide a clean wall, hand out cans of spray paint, and then leave the premises – don’t become shocked when you return and find graffiti on the wall.

5 Responses to “Why Newspapers Get Commenting Wrong”

  1. Lost in the larger discussion about reader comments is the role of the Communications Decency Act. Specifically, liability.

    Bottom line: When it comes to comments (NOT stories), newspapers are generally like bookstores, to the extent they are mere distributors of information. Only when editors start messing around with comments do the problems start.

    This part of the puzzle, while not a game-changer to the larger discussion going on, needs to be more than a footnote.

    – Mike Elfland, Web editor, telegram.com


  2. Hi Mike:
    You should check out the story happening in Kentucky. That law is apparently being challenged. Here’s the link to the Louisville Courier-Journal story on the issue:


  3. Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy was one of the worst things to happen to newspapers, in my mind. Despite the CDA, news organizations decided to just stay out of the on-site conversations. Bad move.

  4. Hi Daniel:
    For those interested in the court case Daniel mentions:


    Daniel, what was the policy at the Chicago Tribune when you were at Tribune Interactive?

  5. Nice stuff. Thanks for the links. As always, HighTalk gets me thinking and teaches me something.


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