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.
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.