The role of the comment feature found on many newspaper and other news content websites, and on ours until a couple of weeks ago, has bedeviled editors and publishers for years. When fully active, and minus much moderation, the comments function invites wide reader participation in the newspaper publishing and editorial process by adding their thoughts about a news story or an opinion piece published on a news website. The feature comes with both good and not so good consequences, though, and after many years of service we’ve decided (as those of you who follow our comments may have noticed) to turn off the feature. We hope this pause gives us a chance to rethink our commitment to comments, and to help us do the job of engaging with readers at the speed of a click.
Traditionally, newspapers kept tight control over the use of their opinion pages for exchanges with readers. Readers would get to participate via actual signed letters, and live editors would both vet their content and confirm that the senders were legitimate, real persons. Some newspapers would select among the letters and feature a few, and some would print almost all, as we do.
Technology and the turn to web publication, though, easily facilitated instantaneous reader posts, and newspapers have had to decide whether to give up the control of the letters section they were accustomed to. In most instances, reader participation and at least a partial opening in the wall between readers and publishers was seen as a good idea, and publishers acquiesced, usually with rules of conduct; all letters — whether received in the mail or via email — had to have the letter writer’s name and town in order to be published.
But commenting on individual stories on the website has been different, with its allowance for anonymity. The underlying idea has been that reader comments on newspaper posts would contribute to civic enlightenment in back-and-forth fashion, each expanding on the previous observation, and each helping to increase both reader enlightenment and reader engagement. Many more readers, sometimes known as “lurkers,” who read but don’t participate, would also expand the audience. And the websites would bring to our sites added, relevant content at no additional cost. So, wins all around.
As seems to be the case in our digital world, though, no good idea goes uncorrupted or unexploited for long. With no barriers except through costly, heavy-handed moderation and readily accessed send buttons, constraints on open comments depend in the end on basic decency. What we too often see instead, though, can be repetitive, and sometimes incorporates name-calling, bullying, unsubstantiated and perhaps untruthful arguments, and certainly basic rudeness.
It may be a “fair” arena for those comfortable with it all, but it simply isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t what we originally signed up for. Anonymity — granted to protect whistleblowers, or those who feared harassment, or simply those uncomfortable duking it out over ideas in the public square — too often turns into a shield protecting cowards and trolls enjoying the discomfort they cause, and becomes its own flashpoint. Though we sought to carefully moderate comments so as not to allow mean comments, name-calling, or those that sought to make unverified, unverifiable, or outright false allegations, it simply becomes too big a job. The resources needed to monitor and manage all this are significant, and better devoted elsewhere, especially if the cleaned-up discussion would wind up looking like what one newspaper critic described as “a well-manicured suburban lawn.”
Comments as entertainment rather than as tools of civic (if not civil) discourse are not new products of the wild, wild web, but have, sadly, deteriorated markedly in style and humor. Forty years ago, in a “Saturday Night Live” skit, seasonal Vineyard resident Dan Ackroyd began a rebuttal of Jane Curtin’s defense of a Hollywood divorce principal with the immortal debate tagline, “Jane, you ignorant slut.” And as reported by Michael Grynbaum in the New Yorker, more than 50 years ago, the erudite and intellectual powerhouses William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal, in one of several debates staged as ratings boosters by ABC News to parallel the 1968 presidential debates, included these forensic but gratuitous gems: Vidal calling Buckley a “crypto-Nazi,” the never flat-footed Buckley starting his comeback with “Now listen, you queer,” and then threatening to punch Vidal in the face, and then, not even shocking in the course of these exchanges, a note from Bobby Kennedy suggesting that Vidal should be deported to Vietnam.
Apart from occasional flare-ups of ill will (and a couple at the hands of off-Islanders too gross to recount), our experience with the quality of public comments here at The Times has been pretty good. Our relatively small cadre of regular commenters are mostly thoughtful and good-humored, produce interesting additions to our own work, do their best to stay on target, and even do a pretty good job of policing those who stray outside acceptable norms of the genre. At the same time, some readers in our community whose sensibilities matter to us are offended, some neighbors willing to add their thoughts and ideas into the public square rightly resent being piled on by anonymous trolls (we feel differently about public officials who have signed on for criticism), and a few commenters are simply malicious.
We’re going to work hard on our end to find innovative and useful ways to draw readers in, to add to the texture and perhaps to illustrate the human implications of our reporting and our opinion pages. It’s time, though, for us to rethink the opportunities our platforms provide, perhaps experiment a bit, and best of all, to hear from you about what you would (or wouldn’t) like to see. As a first step, I’m asking you to write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let us know what you think.