Saturday, February 04, 2006

What can we learn from the Post?

A McClatchy interactive journalist recently emailed to ask, “Given the recent Washington Post difficulties with unruly online users, have we lessened our resolve to offer more reader interaction on stories?”

I told him my take-away from the Washington Post experience is that we need more involvement with readers, not less. I think there are important lessons to be learned from that episode, to be sure, but retreat and isolation can't be among them.

Some of you are blogging, and many have bloggers on staff. Several of the websites allow reader comments and some let readers originate content. At least a couple enjoy the distinction of having blogs aimed directly at their paper. Everybody involved in these things is likely to know at least as much about this as I do, but I’ll start the discussion with these broad thoughts.

This issue is at the root of the changing relationship between producers and consumers of news. From now on, you’re going to be fact-checked and second-guessed and criticized all the time, from all quarters. You have some control over how this happens on your own sites, but none at all beyond that.

What we can control is the attitude we bring to it, our willingness to engage in the process and our ability to take a punch. My position is that while the exchanges won’t always be fair, they will almost always be helpful if we can handle things appropriately.

We do have a responsibility for content in our papers and on our sites. I don’t propose to abdicate that. There’s no value in letting people call us (or others) kike-nigger-nazi-fuckers. There’s much value in controlling against that sort of behavior and its ugly cousins.

But the perimeters of debate are much, much broader nowadays. If you want to insist on fact-checking every contention or rejecting anything that looks ad hominem, you’ll be missing much of the point. My editorial page editor in Anchorage used to look at some of the mail we got and say, “Well, stamps are cheaper than therapy.” That’s doubly true online.

More worrisome, to me, is the capability of a few trolls to completely hijack a discussion, moving it so far off topic and digressing into such a swamp that it simply loses utility for most readers. There are plenty of pixels elsewhere to waste of those digressions, and we need to find ways to keep our efforts useful for our audiences.

We will need to police against these ills, including extreme incivility and topic hijacking, and old favorites like libel. Doing so will involve touch as much as it does proscription. I can’t think of any way to learn except trying.

There seemed to be a couple of obvious take-aways from the Post fiasco.

  • They waited way too long to address complaints about the accuracy of Deborah Howell’s assertion, apparently because they had a policy of correcting column errors in the column itself, and were waiting a week for her next outing. Well, if I got 700 email complaints (and knew we were wrong), I hope I’d react quicker;
  • Her initial correction was grudging – narrow and, I thought, tendentious. Her fall-back (that Abramoff may not have given donations, but did direct them) didn’t really hold up well to analysis – which the blogosphere readily supplied. There’s no quick refuge, no easy out in this kind of firestorm.
  • The paper’s reasons for halting blog posts, then removing them, then putting some back were confusing at best. Even if you take each of the evolving explanations at face value (and, basically, I do), the lack of clear reasons and plain talk certainly added fuel to their critics.
  • The blogosphere has an incredible reach. The Post suggested that profanity played a role in deleting some posts; only hours later some blogger had found a transcript of a 1993 Howell interview where she said “motherfucker.”
  • An old pol in Juneau told me years ago, “Son, if you give your enemy a stick, he’ll beat you with it.” So true.
Here are some links if you want to read more about this.

One of the harshest, meanest critics is Jane Hamsher, who write at Huffington Post and her own site, firedoglake.

Jay Rosen has written a lot about this at Press Think.

There are links to a lot what the Post has written, and more, at this page.

I'm curious about what you think of all this, too.



  1. I ran into this issue almost immediately when I launched my blog last August. An outpouring of nasty comments overwhelmed us and we shut down comments briefly. However, I got a note with some good advice from a conservative blogger, who said shutting down comments would cost us credibility, so we moved quickly and reopened comments with some cautions to our posters.

    We didn't experience a comment blast anywhere near the Post's in terms of scale, but I think the lesson remains: people who are criticizing you want to be heard, and if you open up a space and ask for comment, they're not going to appreciate being banished for bad behavior.

  2. Here is a good use for registration. The MNI papers using Drupal for forums have a good tool, thanks to its integration with inSite. Drupal also has good tools for slowing the trolls.

    I think that when users have to actually provide some information about themselves, they become slightly less rude.

  3. I tend to agree with Andy. And I hope we all draw an important distinction between improper posting -- personal attacks and threats and hate speech and the like -- and folks who are simply being harshly critical of us. There is nothing improper, from an online community standpoint, about taking shots at the work we do. We need to be open to such criticism, and we should be able to explain why we've taken the steps we've taken. At the worst, our reders walk away still critical of us but at least better informed. And we walk away with another potentially valuable piece of information about our users and their expectations.

  4. Right on, Will.

    As an industry, we are scared to death of losing control of our products. We seem to need to keep a death grip on our letters page and our online commenting/forums.

    Let readers freely comment? On our own site? OMG!!!!

    Guess what, folks. They already are, but they're doing it on and a million other places. Wouldn't we rather they bitched about us on our own servers? Or would we rather give the page views to someone else?

    Let us be happy that our community cares enough to comment on what we do. We need to be truly frightened when they stop commenting on what we write.

  5. Latest from Gallup on blog readership

    **Blog Readership Bogged Down**
    Gallup's latest examination of Americans' online habits finds that one in five Web users read Web-logs, or "blogs," either frequently or occasionally. Though this translates into 40 million readers, it relegates blogs to the bottom pack of Internet activities, among the 13 for which Gallup recently measured Americans' use. Like most Web activities, blog readership hasn't increased over the past year or so, even though Americans are spending more time online.

  6. Zeeck9:06 AM

    Maybe this has been thrown out there, but we found Steve Yelvington's comments on extremely helpful to our thinking on this topic. I think we're learning toward telling readers/commenters our expectations about comment, and asking for some minimal identification, probably related to registration.

    Here's the url: