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!
Jeff said on June 8, 2007 at 8:29 am
Dept. of the Obvious Question — is there a consultant meme that’s going around, telling editors that they can’t restrict comments? Because they all let the durndest crud through whatever (*koff* non-existent *koff*) filters they have up with online content. Obscenity seems to be screened, since what does get posted leaves me unable to believe that they’re all discreetly eschewing vulgarity.
The other odds-on favorite is that editors mostly just loathe public commentary of any sort enough that they’re playing a passive aggressive role, quietly delighting in the swill that pollutes an otherwise interesting debate/discussion. They can ignore the bulk of what could be learned from comboxes because of the scattered but persistent word-grenades thrown over the transom.
I gotta stop using the word transom before my nine year old figures out just how old i am.
John said on June 8, 2007 at 8:34 am
Gawd! I’ve been to Rotary lunches with my cousin’s husband and never heard anything that interesting!
Connie said on June 8, 2007 at 8:36 am
“appropriate for both children and fat-gram-counting women” but not for carb counting women like me. At least it was good carbs as opposed to bad carbs.
I’ve kind of calmed down about my newspaper comment skewering yesterday, mostly due to a great continuing discussion with many of the people who use those forums.
And the comment wasn’t even anonymous. A well known and rather nasty community activist basically said “I heard there was enough money set aside to build this new library and the new Library Director spent it all.” That would be me seven years ago. I did post a response stating that construction money had been set aside and that it had been spent on building the new branch we opened in 2001.
My real problem was with the “I heard” part. Yes, let’s all make public attacks with undocumented accusation about public officials.
My husband says I take things too personally. Maybe so. If you have any desire to read this commentary yourself you can see it at http://www.etruth.com/News/NewsStory.aspx?id=412460 .
And maybe I’m depressed because we’ve been without water at home since Tuesday. And because they are drilling a new well today at a base rate of $2,600. I keep whining “my kid goes to Butler.” I expect to see a tuition bill for next Fall any day.
LA mary said on June 8, 2007 at 9:55 am
Lands End swimsuits may a dorky, but they fit tall people. This has been a majoy quality of life improvement for me.
LA mary said on June 8, 2007 at 9:56 am
Make that “may BE dorky.”
brian stouder said on June 8, 2007 at 10:31 am
As Dave Barry probably wouldn’t say, “The Melon-Ballers” would be a great name for a band.
It could work for the backup band that tours with The Artist Formerly Known As Johnny Cougar
Connie – plenty of that sort of “I heard” argumentation going on around Fort Wayne, regarding the FWCS school reconstruction bond issue; and lots of aspersions being cast at the various public officials involved (most especially including Dr Wendy Robinson, who runs FWCS).
FWCS approved a bond issuance to begin the project, thus triggering a remonstrance, thus kicking off a month-long, distinctly 19th century campaign, wherein the two sides circulate petitions (pro-reconstruction project on yellow paper, anti-reconstruction on blue), and wherein only the signatures of property owners will count. (if you are a renter, you have no vote – even though your kids attend the schools and your rent is directly affected by the property taxes due on the place where you live. And if your spouse’s name [or your house-mate, or whatever] is the only one on the house you own, you have no vote. My question is – what about successful forgeries?)
The potential for fraud – and the reality of disenfrachisement – is flatly ridiculous, on so important an issue.
We have a yellow sign in our yard, and I have winced a time or two when passersby have slowed, and stared (or glared? or nodded in agreement?)
But I digress!
Julie Robinson said on June 8, 2007 at 11:09 am
Welcome to grown up world, Nancy. It does involve Pyrex Portables (a great invention in my book–do they make them for crock pots?). Also; field trips, doctor visits, 15 year old clothes, sewing costumes for plays, sitting through soccer games, basketball games, wrestling and track and tennis meets, unending band contests and concerts. Etc, etc, etc.
Sometimes it means a second mortgage to pay for good education, sometimes staying in a job you despise to pay that mortgage. Sometimes it means swallowing hard and signing that yellow petition while wondering how you’ll pay the extra property taxes.
It’s worth the self-sacrifice when your children are grown, or almost grown, and you start to realize how important all that was to their development. To quote Ms. Clinton, it really does take a village. We all have to contribute because no one can do it on their own.
And now I shall climb down from my soapbox.
Oh, BTW, try the long torso suits at Penney’s if you’re tall. It’s the first one I’ve ever owned that didn’t bind in all those delicate areas.
LA mary said on June 8, 2007 at 11:28 am
Since younger son Pete goes to an artsy charter school, our end of year ritual this year consisted of attending an overlong, pretentious performance called, “Odysseus, Man of Many Twists.” There was excellent choral singing, and the honors string ensemble is remarkable considering they are between 11 and 17 years old. There was a lot of bad Martha Graham-ish dancing though. Chunky tween girls in all black doing something called, “Penelope, Weaving and Unweaving,” was not so good. My son was a chicken (an all black chicken), chasing a dragonfly portrayed by a kid with a smaller kid on his shoulders, both waving their arms like wings. Just to keep up my brush with celebrity rep, the kid on the top was Wolf Fleetwood Ross, grandson of Mick Fleetwood. Gwen Stefani’s neice was in the show, too.
This went on for about two hours at an outdoor amphitheatre. I feel I’ve done my mom duty. Coming up:driver’s permit for the older son.
Julie Robinson said on June 8, 2007 at 11:41 am
Oh, yeah, I forgot grade school concerts and driver’s ed, not to mention car insurance for a young male!
LA mary said on June 8, 2007 at 11:47 am
The insurance is going to run me 100-150 per month.
MichaelG said on June 8, 2007 at 11:50 am
The good part is when they start having their own kids. I figure my job is to teach my grandson to drink, cuss and smoke cigars. Want more fries, Dominic? Cool. Here, have some more Coke with that. Oh, and some popcorn too? Here you go. Not my job to say no. He gets enougn of that from his mom and dad. I have one grandson now and my daughter is pregnant with #2. I get to help spoil another one. He’s really a great little boy and I’m not really that bad.
LA mary said on June 8, 2007 at 12:23 pm
Kids are great. Older son is off school now, and he started an heirloom tomato garden for me. I didn’t even ask him to. Twelve plants, lots of varieties. Younger son is doing chores without my asking now. Not always, but often enough.
Kim said on June 8, 2007 at 12:41 pm
Kids are great. Mom duty sometimes not so much, but always enlightening. To wit: Three hours today in library at trailer park middle school (temp location while long-promised renovation occurs) instructing child after child (some of whom looked old enough to be … ME) to use sharpie to sign inside cover of the yearbook.
Most were polite, but one 7th grader didn’t want to. Told him it was required. “Jesus!” he said. “I beg your pardon,” I said. I have seen and heard quite a lot, but it’s always a stunner when a kid talks back. My mother, for all her shortcomings, would have backhanded me into next month had I spoken to an adult like that. And somehow I don’t see that as a shortcoming!
Kim said on June 8, 2007 at 1:33 pm
What I meant to say: Nance, your idea to vet posters is perfect. The only flaw is that it requires editors who can link all the cars on the logic train.
basset said on June 8, 2007 at 9:39 pm
Land’s End clothes? Pyrex food-carrier? All that other stuff? Sounded good to me till you mentioned the hip-hop part.
and I’m surprised “melon-ball” hasn’t been redefined to describe some particularly repellent sexual practice… or more likely it has and I just haven’t heard about it.
michaelj said on June 9, 2007 at 5:36 am
I despise the term blog. It‘s just ugly and stupid and truncated to be uglier and more stupid. But I start every day by checking one, and it isn‘t Nancy Nall, though I read this every day, because Nancy is a very good writer and a halfway decent editor, and it‘s endearing that somebody thinks Iggy was Detroit music when there was MC5.
The one I check is River. This is a young Iraqi woman. I guess English is her second language, but she’s absolutely eloquent, and elegant, in English, unlike, well, you know, anybody appointed to the executive by himself or the Supreme Court. Shadow government isn’t ever easy, just ask Larry Macdonald.
So anyway, I’ve been reading her dispatches since around 2003, and when there’s nothing new, I worry that something’s happened to her. There’s a litany of anti-Constitutional offenses perpetrated in the name of PNACenturions, but if they’ve managed to harm this beacon of intelligence and peace and universal harmony, there’s no ring of hell they’re worthy of. No torment that can match their crime.
I know this isn’t a political forum, but I think y’all stand for honest journalism. River’s that, in spades.
michaelj said on June 9, 2007 at 7:58 am
Oh, and ‘monkeywrenchers’. Interesting application, but any acknowledgment of one of the world’s greatest writers is welcome. We think of monkeywrenching as physical acts of discomfiture against machines like bulldozers, and we know they’ll win in the end, but Hayduke lives.
danindy said on June 9, 2007 at 10:27 am
sigh…I wish I had kids. Instead I have to blow my extra income on a trek through the mountains of Panama next month…sigh.
Ricardo said on June 9, 2007 at 12:06 pm
I don’t believe the curse of Bobby Layne, but I do know that the Lion’s mediocracy began with William Clay Ford’s ownership. In one of those ESPN shows Art Donovan said you could smell booze on Layne’s breath from the other side of the line. Team mates said “…when Bobby said BLOCK, you blocked, and after the game if he said DRINK, you went with him to drink…”
Danny said on June 9, 2007 at 12:18 pm
Artie Donovan. A true Baltimore hero. Love that guy.