Over the weekend, Margaret Sullivan spoke up in defense of comments, reacting to NPR’s recent decision to do away with them. She wrote that she finds this form of discourse more varied than Twitter and Facebook, and reads comments both on her articles and others of interest. She also cited a recent speech made by Texas Tribune chief audience officer Amanda Zamora.
The first part of the headline for Sullivan’s latest Washington Post column—“Everyone Seems to Hate Online Reader Comments”—is misleading. In fact, a lot of people love them. For proof of that, one need look no further than the bottom of Sullivan’s Sept. 4 article where, at the time of writing, more than 1,270 responses have been logged. From far and wide:
Robert from Melbourne Australia: Marg, I have to say that I absolutely love the way that you do things at the WaPo. Some of the comments made are pretty direct (I have been responsible for some like that too) but it gives people a real chance to ‘let off a bit of steam’. And it hasn’t brought the country down. What you have going for you there at WaPo is ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC!!! It ain’t broke so please don’t fix it.
MabelDodge: Apropos of Ms. Sullivan’s comment on her experiment [at the Buffalo News] with signed comments: Sixty years ago when I was a student at Antioch College there was a clothes line strung from one end of the Main Building’s central hallway to the other end. Large pieces of paper, dark pens, and clothes pins were available so we could write and post anything we wanted to say on the clothes line. We were expected to respect only two rules: what we wrote was to be an “informed opinion” and we had to sign our names. The clothes line made for interesting reading. Fast forward to 20 years ago when I worked for Williams College and was disturbed by many of the distasteful and mean spirited messages that were chalked on the college’s sidewalks. When I, in naivete, suggested that we ask our students to sign their names to what they chalked, others – younger than I – were horrified that anyone could suggest asking people to give up their anonymity. Too bad, one’s signature does seem to assure better writing and reading.
Roblimo: I was an early and long-time editor of the infamous Slashdot website, which helped turn news from a monologue into a dialogue. I’m a pretty fair reporter and writer, but I’ve never believed I was notably smarter than the average reader, and readers often know more than I do about a particular subject. I was even (BOAST ALERT) called the founder of citizen journalism by a few journo profs.
guybaehr: Without comments there is much less of a reason to subscribe to digital news media. As a former newspaper reporter, I know that the traditional one-sided conversation from all-knowing journalists is convenient and comfortable for the journalists. Letting readers talk back, especially when they add useful information, point out significant omissions or call out conscious or unconscious bias, can be uncomfortable. Your editor might read some of them. At the same time, one can take it constructively, using tips and suggestions and even critical comments to make your future reporting stronger and deeper, which should be the goal. Personally, I find the moderated comments at the New York Times more useful than the free-for-all at the Washington Post, but both systems have value.
In the Sullivan comments thread, there are also many people who mention the difference between the moderated approach favored by The New York Times vs. the more open system of the Washington Post and, formerly, NPR. Let’s hope others at the Post besides Sullivan read these comments as well; there are a number of good suggestions from readers on how to tweak the paper’s commenting system.