By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

News is a (nasty) conversation

The participatory model of journalism is one of the more interesting experiments taking place in news these days. But it’s got a downside. Adam Gaffin posts this item about the comments sections being shut down at three local GateHouse weeklies — the Somerville Journal, the Swampscott Reporter and, now, the Cambridge Chronicle.

It’s a shame, but I’m not surprised. Sooner rather than later, news orgs are going to have to move away from allowing anonymous and pseudonymous comments and instead require people to post under their real names. Right now, no editor dares to take that step on the theory that the comments will disappear. But it has to happen.

Busy editors and reporters don’t have time to monitor every anonymous comment as it comes in. This isn’t about technology; it’s about common sense. Letters to the editor are rarely published without the writer’s name attached. If anything, online comments, which are posted automatically and without editing, ought to be held to a higher standard.

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  1. Ron Newman

    I’m one of the four moderators of Davis Square LiveJournal, a very lively forum covering not just Davis Square but also the rest of Somerville and even nearby North Cambridge.I’ve been co-moderating it for about the past six months. We’ve only had to delete about eight posts during that time. Most of those deletions were for failing to follow our rules (especially the one about “hav[ing] something to do with Davis Square or the immediately surrounding areas”). I can remember only one post ever deleted for abusive behavior, and I don’t think we’ve ever had to delete comments because of abusiveness.GateHouse needs to try harder.

  2. Jon Garfunkel

    I see that back in August, Howard had blogged about announced that that was their plan at Gatehouse. Wonder what happened.Meanwhile, I see below that Google/Blogger is supporting multiple auth servers including OpenID. That’s a good step.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Jon: Yes, one of these days I’m going to have to require authentication on Media Nation, now that it’s not as onerous as it used to be.

  4. Howard Owens

    It’s still our intention to go in the direction of real names (though the debates on my blog about this have raised some reasonable objections).It’s a matter of getting the technology we want from our CMS vendor, whom we’ve tasked with higher priority items.It may be worth noting that we use the same commenting system on several sites around the country. We haven’t had nearly the problem else where (even in New England, so far) that we’ve had in Somerville and Cambridge. Since I’m not a local, I don’t know if this is something unique to those communities, or reflects how much more active those news staffs are in keeping their web sites updated.The’ve also had the commenting system in place longer than other sites, and that could be a factor, too.FWIW: I’m not really surprised it’s come to this point. I had hoped we would have a better system in place by now, but what’s happened in Somerville and Cambridge follows the same pattern we (meaning, when I ran that site) experienced in Ventura four years ago.

  5. Anonymous

    What do you mean by authentication? A real first name and last name, or something else like “methesheeple?” I’d rather not have the former, but it is your blog.

  6. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 10:57: Ideally, you’d have a real first and last name. But a well-established alter ego is probably OK. I think the standard for newspapers might be different from that of blogs.

  7. Anonymous

    i find it surprising that they would shut off the anonymous on line comment feature at the somerville site but continue to keep publishing that silly speak out column. the column features anonymous phone messages which are then publshed in the paper. the comments can get down right nasty and not much better than what i have seen on line in the comment section. it doesn’t add much respect to the paper.

  8. BradysAlterEgo

    “Gatehouse needs to try harder.” Huh? What do they need to try harder at? Hiding their site from lunatics? The audience of a narrow-interest site like Davis Square LiveJournal is in no way comparable to the audience of a general media site.

  9. DJS

    I wonder if news sites would have such problems if commeters were paid subscribers who felt more invested in the product.I understand how hard it is to sell subscriptions to online media, but it seems plausible that free and open content invites this kind of abuse.Doug

  10. Kat Powers

    As the editor of one of these sites, I have to disagree with some of the folks here.The disgusting comments that prompted my shutting down comments were about regular folks living their lives, and were racist, bizarre and insulting to most humans. And since I don’t have the tools to block individual users (an ability some of the posters at LiveJournal think I have but I am too lazy to use), I have to either live with racist taunts at babies on my site for hours in the middle of the night, or shut off the comments. I chose the latter. See more over here.But don’t get me wrong. As soon as I can edit the truly horrid from the comments – as I do in SpeakOut – I want those comments back on. But let me share this: We have truly compassionate, thoughtful, insightful readers who use names like Phe, Deval Supporter, Tricky and Jack Meoff whose voices add so much to our stories. Just because they can’t or won’t use their real names doesn’t mean they can’t add to the conversation. My hope is the future includes more folks like them, and fewer nitwits.

  11. Mr Punch

    Letters to the editor are a popular, much-read feature of newspapers, distinctive to each local paper, and part of their interest lies in the identification of the writer. It’s an act of supreme stupidity for papers to devalue this asset — especially by running anonymous commentary in print editions.

  12. Dan Kennedy

    Kat: I think you’re right. On reflection, I would not ban pseudonymous commenters as long as you have an authentication system in effect so that different people can’t pretend to be Tricky, for instance. I find that some of the best commenters to Media Nation fall into that category. Thank you for checking in.

  13. Real name: Amanda

    Don’t forget that Medford and Malden’s newspaper sites have been suffering an equally high volume of racist, hateful and slanderous commentary as Somerville and Cambridge, and we are also taking the steps to remove commentary completely. People go so far as to post slurs or personal attacks on things such as obituaries, social announcements and lighthearted features. Many readers have suggested that we implement controls such as registration or authentication, and both the Medford and Malden editors are now, instead of moderating abusive comments all day long, taking the phone calls and emails of readers who did leave normal commentary and now are angry that they have been “censored.” Where is the line for journalists? Neither of our papers publish speakouts anymore, so luckily we aren’t hearing any comparisons to that.

  14. chelms

    I’m editor of the GateHouse news site in Watertown, and this far (fingers crossed) we’ve had a pretty good experience. We have one of the top 10 most-read sites and blogs among GateHouse properties in New England, but despite the volume, the trolls haven’t done us too much damage so far. Mostly I find that we learn things from readers. And not a few times readers have caught mistakes before they appeared in our weekly print edition.

  15. endangered coffee

    I would hope most sites would use a system that requires authentication with an email address or such, allowing aliases. While I’ve written letters to the editor under my real name, there’s a difference between being identified in the local paper and having your real name floating out on the Internet for everyone to see and hack into and do whatever it is these kids do on the Internets today.

  16. David Harris

    I’m editor of one of the newspaper sites mentioned above in Dan’s comments (Cambridge specifically). I think Timothy J. McNulty of the Chicago Tribune said it best: “Traditional newspapers built up their credibility by revering free speech (and even the boorish and ignorant have that right) but also by upholding standards of truth and civility.”I don’t think using real names is the answer here. It would be nice, sure. But what would stop the mayor of Genericville, USA from posting comments using the name of some cartoon character? The solution is shifting a little more responsibility to the end-user… in other words: having readers/participants register so they can comment. I realize this may be a barrier for those knee-jerk readers, but, hey, maybe it would prevent a lot of the race baiting, libel-filled comments that serve no purpose.

  17. Jon Garfunkel

    DJS wrote: “I wonder if news sites would have such problems if commeters were paid subscribers who felt more invested in the product.”I actually proposed that very idea (see PaperTrust) back in September, and I sent it around to some journalism professors I know. Chris Daly at BU thought it deserved a look at.BTW, it’s nice to see many local community webmasters post to this thread. I expected that many of you are regular readers of MediaNation, though it’s a rare post like this which delves into the technical issues to bring people out in the comments. Is there a more regular forum somewhere I don’t know about?The Online News Association had mustered one Boston chapter meeting a couple of years ago, and that’s all I know.Jon

  18. Peter Porcupine

    Coffee – Hear hear! I’ve been writing under a pseudomym for over 200 years,like Publius and many other of the Founding Brothers, and while many know my real name is Cobbett, I prefer the masked ball cachet of Porcupine!

  19. Aaron Read

    Interestingly, there was a post of parallel punditry over on the NFCB listserv earlier today. NFCB is the Nat’l Federation of Community Broadcasters, think the NAB for community radio stations. Usually not college radio stations, or at least not very student-oriented.Anyways, one poster was wondering how stations dealt with internal listservs. Apparently they’ve started having problems with rants, attacks, excessive postings, postings that really should’ve been private, and postings that have little to do with station business.He wanted to know what rules/policies other stations had to help deal with such issues so he could try and solve them on his end.My response is that while a clear and known-to-all set of basic rules is important…you can’t legislate civility. If the people behind the usernames are prone to rantings and attacks in person, you best believe that no amount of rules or reminders (gentle or otherwise) will get them to behave while online. In other words, don’t worry so much about the listserv…worry about the people themselves.The implication is, naturally, that if you’ve got someone who’s a “problem poster”, the only surefire way to get them to stop is to remove them from the listserv entirely; which typically means booting them out of the station entirely.The question, of course, is how to apply that mindset to a situation like Gatehouse. The posters aren’t really employees, unpaid or otherwise, and you can’t easily ban someone from posting at all…even with authentication.I’m drawing a blank at a real solution here but I’d be curious to know if anyone else has an idea.

  20. Tony

    I would agree with some of my Gatehouse colleagues: I think that the comment option, when it is not abusive, can add a lot to our stories.

  21. Anonymous

    David Harris said… I don’t think using real names is the answer here. It would be nice, sure. But what would stop the mayor of Genericville, USA from posting comments using the name of some cartoon character? Peter Porcupine is the classic example here. It’s sort of an open secret that PP is really the Republican National Committee Woman from the Cape and Islands. which is to say, if you have the stomach to wade through Red Mass Group, you’ll have come across this:, if you’re just an average reader, you’ll never know about her affiliation with the Mass GOP, Citizens for Limited Taxation, etc. You might notice that her defense of Mitt Romney borders on the obsessive, but it you’ll never know that she wrote Mitt a letter asking him to run.People are, of course, free to evaluate her content on its own merits. It still doesn’t make what she does ethical.

  22. endangered coffee

    PP comments on a blog, and I probably disagree with her/his views most of the time, but I don’t see what that has to do whatever with ethics.I mean, you’re commenting as anonymous. And it’s a blog, for Pete’s sake!

  23. Anonymous

    PP comments on a blog, and I probably disagree with her/his views most of the time, but I don’t see what that has to do whatever with ethics.Ethics comes in when she posts about issues directly affecting her without identifying herself. For example, Howie Carr called her out as one of the GOP state committee members working for the state. She subsequently posted about it here, BMG, and RMG without identifying herself. Same goes with her defenses of Romney and Healey without identifying her involvement in their campaigns.

  24. endangered coffee

    Ehhhhh, and you’re still anonymous. Still don’t bug me.

  25. liamstliam

    A late response to Ron.I would assume you cannot post anonymously on the Davis Square LJ, right. (or if you can, I rarely see it)That means everyone posting is using an established LJ name, and is identifiable.It’s quite different from the Gatehouse model that requires no identification at all.

  26. Ron Newman

    Davis Square LiveJournal does not allow anonymous comments, but does allow consistent pseudonymity (for instance, I think you post there as “liamstliam”.)I’ll also point out that as bad as the Wicked Local situation is, things are ten times worse at the competing paper, the Somerville News. They aren’t even trying to keep the conversation civil. They experimented for a few hours with a registration system, only to drop it, claiming that it had unacceptably reduced the volume of comments.

  27. Anonymous

    EC,Aren’t you the guy who not only bragged on verbally abusing a Starbuck’s clerk, but thanked the guy who posted this:And to the dude who threatened Baby EC leave a comment at my site with your name and address or lets set up a meeting spot so I can beat the shit out of you and we’ll see if Starbucks will be as accomodating with you when you shit in your diaper and stink up the place because when I get done with you, you will have a closet full of Depends you fucking fag.Not so sure I give a damn what you think about anything, let alone ethics.

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