Connie asked in the comments yesterday what y’all thought of reader comments on individual stories at newspaper websites. I’m on record as thinking they add little and threaten much. (There’s one constituency in Detroit who has made digital graffiti a key part of its message, like the Mark of Zorro, and they’re pretty funny.)
I’m perplexed, although I shouldn’t be, by editors who nod in agreement but wring their hands over how to address the problem. They fill the air with yapping about the brave new digital frontier and its different codes of conduct and attribution and blah blah blah, but the problem doesn’t seem all that intractable to me. For any who may be reading, I’ll make it simple:
First, decide if you’re going to allow anonymous comments, which admittedly runs contrary to the history of letters-to-editors; the usual policy requires a name, address and phone number, and letters are generally verified with a phone call before they run. This discourages pranksters, who would send in letters under, say, the GOP chairman’s name, saying, “I suk! Ha!” It’s sort of a touching ritual, really, harkening back to the “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so” days of Virginia O’Hanlon. But just in my own experience, such double-checking has discouraged not just letter-writing monkeywrenchers, but fake obits and other embarrassing disasters. It didn’t stop two male DJs from getting a photo of themselves in the engagement announcements, with one dressed in drag and heavily airbrushed, but nobody’s perfect.
But say you’re going to allow readers to comment anonymously, in the grand tradition of the internet. And say you’re going to allow a certain level of raucousness short of open hatred, bigotry and weird threats, also in keeping with wild-frontier internet standards. Then your job is still pretty simple:
Moderate your comments.
It’s really not difficult at all. Every comment made on this site comes to me as an e-mail, and I’m able to edit or delete any with a click. (Not that I would; I love you all too much.) As I’ve stated before, first-time commenters have to be approved, but once you’re in, you’re in, until you change your e-mail address or IP number, which is why Brian Stouder’s are always being shunted to moderation; the guy must float around Fort Wayne clattering every keyboard he can find. Admittedly, a major metro is going to get more comments than little ol’ me, but editors keep whining about how overstaffed they are — just find one copy editor and put him or her in charge. Instruct this gatekeeper to be lenient but not to the point of libel or offensiveness, to not get all bent out of shape over spelling or grammar errors, to allow most through but not every single one. Most newsrooms are staffed, if not around the clock, for most hours in the day, and when there’s nobody there to give a thumbs up/down, let the comments sit in a holding queue pending approval.
Hark! I just remembered I’ve recovered some of the data I lost when my last PowerBook died, including the letter I wrote to the Freep editors on this very subject, the one that never saw the light of day (or was even acknowledged, ahem). That’s OK — I knew it was too long, but I wanted them to know some people were actually reading their website and reacting to it. Ah, well. Let’s look it up.
(Pause.) God, I hate the way I write sometimes. It’s as though when my brain is thinking “this is for a newspaper” my voice goes through a pomposity-enhancer: “…with no small amusement”? Kill me now. But here’s the example I cited then:
…How confusing, then, to read this on the Freep.com website, in the reader comments on a story explaining the death of Andrew Anthos, a gay man: “Bet he was used to getting attacked from behind.” This was followed by words of wisdom from MBW: “There is something inherantly (sic) dysfunctional about any guy who puts something in his mouth that has been in his rear end for the last 20 minutes.” MBW goes on to condemn the bisexual, too, who nightly confront the question, “Do I want hair pie or balls on my face?”
I quote these comments with no small amusement, knowing that if this ever appears in ink-on-paper form, this colorful language will be rendered in a less-offensive gray. So how about another example, from a story about the selection of Corperryale Harris as Mr. Basketball: “How many 40 ouncers and drugs did his parents use when they came up with that name????” Wrote another: “Doctor, my husband.. err, boyfriend.. err, person I met one night and I are having trouble naming our newborn son… I want to name him corper, but he wants to name him ryale, what are we to do?” Ha ha!
Any copy editor used to working fast should be able to weed out stuff like this in a thrice. Ditto the libel of our dear Connie. I thought editors were supposed to be thinking outside the box, for god’s sake. How hard does it have to be?
OK, then. For those of you who cannot live another minute without knowing what salad was on yesterday’s menu, go ahead and exhale: Fruit. Because once in every summer a girl should get to use her melon-baller.
As Dave Barry probably wouldn’t say, “The Melon-Ballers” would be a great name for a band.
Yesterday was a good day. A trifle hot, but good. Although I had one of those moments, when I left the house, a camera-pulls-back moment of standing outside myself, looking at this person who claims to be me:
Dumb outfit from Lands End? Check. Bag carrying mother’s tools of caution and preparedess, i.e. SPF 30 sunblock, boring swimsuit (also from Lands End), digital camera, goggles and novel for slow periods? Check. Inoffensive side dish appropriate for both children and fat-gram-counting women carried in, Jesus Christ, a Pyrex Portable? Check. Twenty extra pounds? Check. Who is this person? She could pass unnoticed through any suburban shopping mall; in fact, she’s growing invisible. Would anyone who saw her believe that she’s watched people cook heroin in a spoon, listened as an insurance man confessed a fondness for casual at-home nudism at a Rotary lunch, likes to listen to hip-hop really loud in her navy-blue station wagon? Probably not. I should read some more John Cheever.
Have a good weekend!