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

New Haven Independent suspends comments

The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit, online-only news site, has long stood as a model for how to handle comments the right way. Though editor and publisher Paul Bass allows anonymity, he makes sure that every comment is screened before it’s posted. His comments policy begins: “Yes we do censor reader comments. We’ll continue to.”

So I was pretty surprised to learn a little while ago that Bass has suspended comments in order to give him and his staff some time to “catch our breath” and think about how to handle a deluge of nastiness — a deluge that he says has been on the increase since last fall’s contentious mayoral campaign. He writes:

The resulting harsh debate made me wonder: Is this the long-awaited new dawn of democracy and accountability we thought we were helping to help spark in New Haven by launching the Independent in 2005? Or are we contributing to the reflexively cynical, hate-filled discourse that has polluted American civic life? Are we reviving the civic square? Or managing a sewer with toxic streams that demoralize anyone who dares to take part in government or citizen activism?

What precipitated the hiatus, Bass explains, was a particularly hateful comment that somehow got posted even though he thought he’d zapped it. (It’s gone now.)

The city’s daily newspaper, the New Haven Register, has had its own problems with hateful, racist online comments. The new editor, Matt DeRienzo, vowed shortly after his appointment last summer that the Register would begin screening all comments — a system that is now in effect.

The idea behind comments is to build a community around the news through a multi-directional conversation. Though community and conversation remain worthwhile goals, nearly 20 years into the online-news era it remains far from clear as to whether online comments are the best way to do that.

Wednesday follow-up: Matt DeRienzo has written a smart reaction piece, asking, among other things, “How can the community be part of your journalism if you don’t even allow them to comment on what you do?”

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  1. Mike Benedict

    Couldn’t they simply block the offenders’ domains, thus saving them the trouble of having to delete scores of comments?

  2. Mike – Blocking offenders’ domains isn’t particularly effective. Unless you want to block the schools, public libraries, open WiFi access points, etc.

  3. Paul Bass

    Mike –we do ban offenders’ domains. What changed was the deluge of nasty comments,including many that skirted the borderline of our policy. It became an all-consuming task to keep up with. And we were failing at it. I concluded we don’t have the resources to do it right; and maybe it’s not necessarily our role anymore, anyway, given the rise of social media.

  4. You know, I kind of love this. Too many venues use the number of comments as a measure of success, and in most of the sites I’ve seen that’s ridiculous. The popular wisdom seems to be that anyone reading- or posting- something on a popular news site or blog should not read the comments.

    Generating conversation is easy; generating a meaningful discussion is much harder and takes time and commitment not only from the moderator but also the posters.

  5. While Paul’s explanation was heart-felt and raises extremely important questions, I was really sad to see this move today.
    Indeed, I hope it is a “catching our breath” moment, an opportunity to “hit the reset button,” and not a permanent change.
    One of the things I’ve admired about the New Haven Independent (and have attempted to emulate at the Register) is Paul’s connection to and partnership with his audience.
    Cutting off their ability to comment (or sending them off the page to Facebook or Twitter, where the conversation can be just as nasty, by the way) or question doesn’t seem to be in keeping with that at all.
    I’ve enjoyed participating in discussions on New Haven Independent stories myself, in fact, especially when the story involves me or the Register.
    And don’t you think it adds something to Dan’s posts here that Paul and I are both weighing in via comments?

  6. Daniel DeMaina

    Question, as I didn’t spot this right off the bat scanning their policy: Does the New Haven Independent require persistent pseudonyms, or is it straight up anonymous, with people having the ability to change their name every time they post?

  7. L.K. Collins

    Go behind a pay wall like The Globe. Cuts out the hateful comments…and turns it into a no-comment land.

    Hateful commenting comes in waves. I suspect Paul is finding himself the recipient of some of The Register‘s outcasts.

    Even though Dan and I disagree on the anonymity issue, I think he will agree with me that aggressive policing of the posts over an extended period of time is effective at solving the problem.

    I’d be more than happy to pass along to Paul some of wnat I see. Dan can give you my e-mail address.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Paul: I’m sure you’re going to think about a lot of possibilities over the next few days and weeks. But I’d consider a rigorous registration system, even if you’re going to continue allowing anonymous comments. That way, they know you know who they are, and they can’t keep changing pseudonyms. Not sure that would have helped in this particular case, but in general it might make your life a little easier.

  8. Brad Deltan

    How much of this is comments, and how much of this is the fact that it’s New Haven? It’s no Bridgeport, but it’s also not exactly the nicest town in Connecticut, and that’s saying something.

  9. @Dan: Regarding that suggestion, did you see that the Lewiston Sun Journal in Maine recently celebrated its one-year anniversary of implementing a verified identity commenting system? Here’s some info:

    @Brad: This is a problem in every local news market I’ve ever experienced or heard about. It’s not “because it’s New Haven.”

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Brad: New Haven is just like any other city, except it’s got better pizza.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Matt: Interesting, but the folks in Lewiston admit that the number of comments is way down. That may be a price worth paying, but it’s too bad.

  10. @Dan: I sat in on a live chat they held about it a week or so ago. One reason comments are way down is that if a controversial or important story happens, the folks who come out of the woodwork because they’re stirred by the issue can’t comment, because the verification process takes a few days.

  11. Mike Benedict

    If the traffic is driven by the same handful of people trying to one-up each other in the nasty category, it’s not really traffic.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike Benedict: One really interesting observation I thought Paul Bass made was that with the Indy’s recent 24-hours-in-New Haven feature, traffic was up and comments were down.

  12. Mike Rice

    How to drain the cesspool of news-site comments?
    Mission accomplished.

  13. I decided to expand my thoughts on this in a blog post this morning:

  14. Rhea Becker

    God, I hate the tone of the comments on most newspaper sites. It is often a collection of the lowest, meanest sentiments. The NY Times manages to rise above this. They are doing something right and it can be emulated.

  15. Sven Martson

    Many readers may not remember that Paul Bass once wrote a column for the New Haven Advocate aptly entitled “Hit and Run”. Protected at the time by a lack of opportunity for immediate rebuttal, he routinely trashed public officials and private citizens alike. Long before the establishment of the NHI he “contributed to the reflexively cynical, hate-filled discourse that has polluted American civic life”, on an ongoing weekly basis. I remember some people who “bore the brunt of his vicious comments” and “in some cases, hurt people deeply” to whom he never apologized, publicly or even privately. Ironically, those who would “take part in government or citizen activism” were often among his targets.

  16. Paul Bass

    What great comments! Thanks everybody. Lots of food for thought.

    Yes, we do ask people to use the same pseudonym all the time.

    As to Sven’s point: He has been hounding me for 20 years because of one article in which he was a subject. Contrary to his point made here, he and his allies had ample time to respond — directly at the time in the letters section of the publication that printed the article (the New Haven Advocate), and then in endless vicious personal attacks he has made sure to contribute, sometimes by name, sometimes not, at every place I’ve worked. That’s part of the job. I know. And he makes good points I like to listen to (when he’s not threatening to punch me out, which he did once, and when I can wade through the name-calling he relies on so often). But I also admit that the cumulative effect of Sven Martsons dominating comments sections is part of what has made me reexamine if they have much value for people beyond a small group of hateful obsessives who direct their rage on unrelated targets. (PS He’s a very good artist.)

  17. The Rev. Mr. Samuel T. Ross-Lee

    Why this over consideration on what some are calling “civility”? Why this worship of courtesy and politeness as if those qualities are the sine qua non of truth and justice? There is way too much emphasis put on the “peaceful” aspect of protest than on the REASON for the protest itself.

    I am forever reminded of MLK’s response to a woman who accused him of disrupting the “peace” in a segregated B’ham, AL with his marches and protest. King responded: “Dear Lady, Peace is not the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” Why don’t we focus more on working for justice, than on quieting the voices that speak out and changing their “tone”. This work will ALWAYS bring about tension, on both sides of the debate. Should we really be trying to moderate the anger, hurt, or fears of those who speak out, so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings in the process of reaching for a higher good?

  18. Mike Benedict

    The decision would be influenced by what each paper (now there’s an anachronism!) sees as its role: does it only initiate the discussion, or does it provide a forum for/moderate the discussion?

    Either way, one solution would be to let it all hang out – readers will find one forum or another for their vulgar comments, so being the traffic cop might not, so being the traffic cop might not be t be the way to go. Instead, the paper could direct all commentators to a third-party bulletin board such as Yahoo, include all the requisite legal disclaimers, and wash its hands of the whole mess.

    Another possibility would be to have all comments submitted as letters to the editor. That alone would filter out most of the riffraff. Each news item has a unique identifier. Include a link to the L2E form on each item’s page, and write a simple script that ties the comment to the story. If accepted, it would show up on the appropriate page. But the key is to make the letter writer include all the traditional personal information each time they submit.

  19. Sven Martson

    Yes Paul, we did respond in the NHA letters section, but what good was that a week after the fact when most people had forgotten about it. In the NHI people have had a chance to make immediate rebuttals and commentaries at the site of the article when the facts are fresh.

    Granted, some comments are uselessly nasty, but you’ve always been able to weed them out (including mine). Perhaps it’s time to add staff to take care of the problem. When I posted my previous comment here I also tried to post the same comment on the sites you linked to in the NHI but I wasn’t able to do so because they’re Facebook sites and I’m not a member. I don’t think the social networks are the answer. They may seem public but they seem more like cliques to me.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Note: Although I do not let people post comments anonymously, as a journalist I may use anonymous sources from time to time if I think it will be a service to the readers of this blog. I received this comment a little while ago, and though I won’t post it under her (his?) pseudonym, I will post it under my own authority. It’s well worth reading. I should add that my email address appears in several places on Media Nation, including twice on the home page. For the record, it’s da dot kennedy at neu dot edu. — DK

      Janet Johnson is not my real name. I could say it is my real name, sign up for verification using a real email address that does not reveal my real name, and then comment on whatever I want. I know this means that my comment will be disqualified, which is unfortunate, as I believe I and other anonymous posters offer a lot to a healthy online discourse (if rules are put in place and followed, which NHI admits they were unable to do).

      In the comment section above, it was mentioned that a paper in Lewiston uses a registration system where it takes several days to be able to comment. That seems like a huge issue for a supposed “community minded” organization, as it puts up major obstacles for successful discourse on current issues. If a cumbersome system like that is put into place, I doubt I will remember to come back in a few days to contribute to the discussion. The news cycle is too quick, and I predict the NHI will lose its importance, which would be a tremendous blow to the city of New Haven and everything that is good about it.

      In Paul’s statement, he said that until everyone in New Haven can speak their mind without fear of reprisal, then the NHI will continue allow anonymous commenting, in some form. I agree with this completely. As an intensely private person in an increasingly public world, I cherish my anonymity. A few bad apples shouldn’t ruin it.

      There’s also the little problem of employees getting fired for speaking their mind on social media sites. There are also safety issues as well, as you can’t verify an online posters’ mental status when you verify their email. Also, consider those readers who are disabled. For example, if I’m physically disabled and post with my full name on a story about hiking East Rock park, then my insurer could try to deny me benefits, based on faulty reasoning that just because I know a hill exists, I must be able to climb it. That might seem far fetched, but it’s actually not.

      I rarely comment on any news site. I agree that many comments can be counterproductive, if not downright offensive. When I see negative comments, I depend on basic reasoning and logic to ignore those posts, and hone in on the comments that are actually productive and contribute to the discourse. I’m surely not the only NHI reader who does this. I don’t complain about negative comments because negativity is an unfortunate human trait,going back to the beginning of time. The NHI readers are, by and far, respectful, intelligent, and care about our city. To reduce the discourse at a time where tensions are heightened feels too much like censorship, in my opinion.

      It’s not a great analogy, but it feels like I’m on a school bus, and the two kids next to me started a food fight, and now I have share in their punishment, because I happened to be riding the bus that day. Guilty by association. Guilty because I don’t want every Tom, Dick and Jerry to know my name, my every thought and opinion, and so on. Guilty because I chose to keep my privacy intact and be anonymous.

      The desire for privacy is not weird, and it is not always the mask of bigots and haters. I think there are lots of folks like me, who are uncomfortable with “forced sharing” that seem to be the goal of social media.

      I DO NOT and WILL NOT sign up for any service that makes me sign into facebook or twitter. Facebook knows to much as it is, and I don’t want to give random people any inkling of what I look like, my interests etc, all of which is available on my fb page, with its ever evolving privacy changes that leave users vulnerable. (My twitter is under a pseudonym, and I successfully blog under one as well.)

      I think privacy and safety for readers has to be at the forefront, along with the multitude of issues raised by the closing of the NHI comment section, and it seems that lots of folks are losing sight of these concerns. I hope that Paul and his staff can implement something that preserves what was successful about the comment section, while keeping it from turning into the Register. I do absolutely believe that a small independent news source is the forum for local residents to discuss these issues. As long as I’m respectful, I should be able to post under a pseudonym or anonymously if I chose. It’s not really “community oriented” if there is no way to comment, or if comments are so moderated that people are forced to share an uncomfortable amount of personal information in order to participate. And yes, I do feel that making me post my real name and so forth in order to participate in an online discussion is an invasion of my privacy. It might not feel like that to you, but it certainly limits this particular readers participation.

      PS I used to live in Somerville MA, and got most of my community news from LiveJournal Davis Square forum. Perhaps the NHI needs a separate forum that users enter at their own risk if they want further discourse on timely and important issues.

      PPS I would have just emailed you, but it took too long to find your email address on this site. I blog anonymously, but I make sure my readers can easily find my email address for contact purposes. Also, please notice that even though I choose anonymity, I am respectful and I believe I would have contributed to the discourse, as stated in your privacy policy…if I were allowed to keep my name private. I am really quite offended by the idea that anonymous posters are always malcontents.

  20. Darnell Goldson

    As a sometimes a victim of those sometimes unfair, untrue, and vicious slanders, I still believe that the comments section of NHI adds value to the public discourse in New Haven. Though I did sometimes wonder how some comments did get in and stay in.

    As a personal example, there is a writer on the NHI comments section who consistently claimed that I would “pull out the race card” in my public debates at the Board of Aldermen. This person even went so far as to claim that I filed a complaint against a city employee and in said complaint referred to this person as a member of the KKK. The truth is that not once did I ever make any argument or debate, public or otherwise, on race merits, or accuse anyone of being a member of any race hate organization, including the KKK. In other words, I NEVER pulled the race card. Yet, when I pointed out this repeated lie in my responses, it was never acknowledged by the NHI that in fact the writer was not telling the truth, nor in most instances their comments were allowed to remain on the site.

    As a public official, I clearly understood that some positions that I took would generate some hostility, so much so that I also knew that my life expectancy as an elected official would not be long, and I did not mind being disliked or raked over the coals for the stands I took. I also understood that these kind of untrue stories would circulate through the “grapevine”, and I could not ever expect to respond to all the negative or untrue stories, particularly since the persons telling them knew they were untrue and of course it would not make a difference. What was disappointing was that there was no attempt to make the writer prove what they were writing, over and over again, especially when the comments were so slanderous / libelous. I know a lot of other stuff was caught before they went to press, and of course I am thankful for that, but it doesn’t make the pain of seeing the stuff that gets through less hurtful.

    Despite all of that, I still believe that the comments section of NHI holds much value, and would gladly continue to take a little (or sometimes a lot) of pain to see the public discourse to continue.

    Paul, please make the “no comments” hiatus a short one.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Darnell: I find it fascinating that some of the comments that have been posted here over the past few days have been from New Haven Independent refugees looking for a place to have their say. Thanks for checking in. And yes, I also hope @Paul’s hiatus will be a short one.

  21. Darnell Goldson

    Thanks Dan, I don’t know if I would be considered much as a refugee, I haven’t commented at all since I left the BOA, but I am still a regular reader and looked forward to the comments that followed each story.

  22. Leonard J. Honeyman

    This was like a Greek tragedy: You knew it was coming; it was inevitable. But you were sad when it got here.
    The comments were getting more and more nasty, often less on the subject than commenting on what another commenter had said about another issue. So what to do? Edit.
    Paul had the answer when he wrote his piece announcing the hiatus. He needs to hire an editor, not only to screen the comments and expurgate them if possible and spike them if warranted, but to edit the rest of the site. The stories often are good, but ruined by bad spelling and syntax and grammar. Believe it or not, many if not most of the readers probably know the difference. Little things mean a lot. Are you talking about Ramsdell Street or East Ramsdell Street, Westville or West Hills? Any adult paper needs a copy desk. The Independent is growing up. It may have a point of view that rankles old-time journalists who still think news organizations should be facts only. That doesn’t preclude good, descriptive writing.
    You need an editor who knows what is libel and what is allowed comment. Such a good editor often will allow more in than one who doesn’t know and must use the “when it doubt, leave it out” because he or she doesn’t know how far one can go, especially in fair comment in an op-ed function, which includes letters to the editor.
    So, Paul, I am not telling you anything you don’t already know, only asking you to redirect your spending.
    I hope this passes quickly.

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