A Comment course correction


It’s been a vigorous couple of weeks in the Comment weeds on mvtimes.com. Two or three of the news and feature stories we’ve published online and in print have attracted swarming attention from commenters and from those who follow the comment threads but disdain participation or fear joining up.

Trying to navigate the ins and outs, ups and downs, likes and dislikes, scolds and fans of the Comment feature has been, as I’ve mentioned in this space several times, a day-in, day-out preoccupation. We’re making it up as we go along of course, looking, along with many others in the information business, for the best practice, or at least the Comment methodology that serves readers best, in a world whose culture, technology, online participation, and expectations change constantly. In the interests of transparency, it makes sense to proffer some clarifying observations about where we are with the Comment feature these days and some of the misconceptions that may prevail in Comment-ville, even though doing so may please some of you and annoy others.

We’re in the censorship business

Not. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth reviewing. The Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom to speak your mind, but the guarantee actually protects you and me and everyone else against the government, which these days would happily tell you, if it possibly could, what to eat, drink, watch, read, listen to, say, and when to scratch your, oh, well nevermind that. Government already does that for the broadcast media, whose airwaves it controls. It does not control privately owned newspapers, which can publish what interests them and landfill the rest. It’s not censorship; it’s what appeals and what doesn’t.

And anyway, it’s not poor Nelson, it is I

You should know that it is not Nelson Sigelman, the newspaper’s managing editor, who deletes your stupid, nasty, hateful, boring posts. He’s busy with important stuff. I monitor the Comment feature. I delete stuff, but probably not enough stuff. I’m the censor. And, I have to say, sometimes I’m happy with my work.

Repetitious and its cousin, boring

Trying to find the right balance between giving commenters wide latitude and moderating the online results, I’ve often erred on the side of the former. But the growth of repetitious, uninteresting, and downright boring posts has depressed me, so I’ve resolved to have fewer of them. Say the same thing over and over, say it so it bores the spirit out of readers, say it as one-liners meant only to be provocative or cutting — then, into the dustbin it will go. It has nothing to do with the opinion, only the expression. It’s got to be original, and it’s got to entertain, if only a little bit.

Personal, small-scale grievance airing

You may hate so and so, and you may get a sick reward from commenting about so and so’s many failings, and not only him but his boss and his brother and their bosses. You may even avoid naming names, because you think you’re less likely to have your Comment post taken down if you leave the name out. But, however you think, you’re wrong.

Relentless hatred of the blessed MVTimes

You can’t just write about how much you hate The Times. Well, you can once in a while, but not over and over again. We’re not offering the Comment feature out of a nutty enthusiasm for masochism. The goal is to encourage conversation, debate, and observations that interest readers and visitors to the site. Join up, if you like. Or don’t.

Charges flung about – this isn’t Facebook, after all

You cannot post Comments that make unfounded allegations about the subjects of published articles or — even more egregious — about people not even mentioned in published reports. The newspaper tries very hard to publish only what it knows and can support with careful, documented reporting. We try to speak with all the legitimate parties to the story. We try to let the readers draw their own conclusions after reading. We try to consider the information we have against the importance of the story to our community and readers. You may know something we don’t know, but we publish only what we’ve satisfied ourselves that we know. That’s what is available for comment.

Turning this story or thread into something else

If we publish a story about a sculpture of a whale, normal Comment practice would be to write What a great whale sculpture or What a terrible whale sculpture or Mammal sculptures are not my bag, or I would have made it bigger, or white, or Too bad it has no fake barnacles on it. But not, The Oak Bluffs shark tournament is an environmental travesty or The sculptor you wrote about once caught an undersize striper and didn’t release it. In the latter case, the commenters have lost the thread and need to go find it elsewhere.

What we publish, online and in print

We publish stories that interest us, that we think may interest you, that we think are important to the way our community, its government, its economy, and its people behave. Sometimes, the stories may simply be about things that surprise us, for example the story about the new Edgartown welcome sign that ignited commenters on all sides of something we hadn’t thought was an issue. We published some of the Comments on the Edgartown welcome sign in the print paper. A letter writer this morning says we shouldn’t have. The stories we publish may be the stories that you want us to tell, or they may not be. They may be stories you wish we hadn’t told. You may suggest that we tell a certain story or look into a certain issue or at a certain public figure. We may do so. Or not.

Your suspicions

When we don’t publish something you wish we had, or don’t take the line you wish we had taken, some of you are quick to decide and to announce, as provocatively as you can, that it’s because The Times and its leadership are friends with the newsmaker, we’re beholden to an advertiser, we’ve been threatened with lawsuits, we’re cowards, we miss the big stories, etc., etc. Utter nonsense, except the part about missing some stories. There are thousands of you, only a few of us. Sometimes we do miss stories.

Someone, a public official sitting in the newsroom the other day, said there’s a lot of disagreeable stuff in the comments, so why don’t you just can the feature? I said, then there wouldn’t be a place for people to express those opinions that irritate you. He said, well, maybe that would be all right. I thought, no, that wouldn’t be right. This is worth doing, although course corrections, like this one, will be necessary from time to time.