As a rule, I try to avoid any and all comments on newspaper websites.
Even after years of reading them, I'm still somewhat shocked whenever a sterling feature story on, say, a woman who lost her husband to cancer but returned to school to get her teaching degree, will bring out people who feel the need to comment on what a horrible man that dead husband was, rant about overpaid teachers, or ridicule the woman's looks.
Or a straight, boring, bland, 25o-word wrapup on a city council meeting somehow devolves in the comments section into an opportunity for someone to blame the city's failure to pave a road on Obama or Reagan or Truman. Or it's the fault of "Mexicans."
A story about students killed in a drunk driving accident will bring out people wisecracking on the deaths, belittling the kids, chastising the families. All of it nauseating, none of it necessary.
A story about a soldier killed in Fort Hood brings out the dregs of society. The horrible comments are surrounded by thoughtful condolences. To me, that hardly makes up for the horrifying ones.
Newspaper comments bring out the worst writing - random all caps, misspellings (libruls, stoopid), missing punctuation - and even worse people.
So I usually just don't click on that tempting little button that says "Read comments." But sometimes I can't help myself, occasionally I want to see just how ridiculous people can be.
The big story in southwestern Minnesota this week was the elimination of 175 jobs from Farley's & Sathers Candy Co. in tiny Round Lake. It's a devastating blow to the entire region, but especially to the small town.
Here's the story from the Worthington Daily Globe. As a news story, it's straightforward, presents all the relevant information, conveys the emotion of the moment, relates the struggles of affected workers and what the possible impact will be on the community. Then you read the comments. A small sampling.
Janelle G. Des Moines, IA 11/06/2009 7:32 AM This is going to continue to happen as long as we allow the Mexicans to INVADE our country. Yes, it is TRUE that they work for little to nothing, BUT AGAIN they should NOT be allowed to liver here unless they are legal citizens!!! DEPORT THEM ALL, get them the hell out of here. What have we had since their arrival in our country, we have LOWERED the hourly wage so the average AMERICAN can't live off of it, we have had our CRIME increased... pat e. Worthington, MN 11/06/2009 6:00 AM This is exactly what obama PROMISED would NOT happen if he was elected! Libs can say this is a stretch but truth is truth.
Horrible comments appear in papers of all sizes, from the smallest weekly to the New York Times. They appear on all stories - sports, news, business and features. No section is immune.
Which always makes me wonder, why do newspapers still allow them? There are those who argue that comments bring people to the website. In today's newspaper world, where papers are going under and thousands have lost their jobs, they need as many people as possible to read the product. And if they comment, that will keep them coming, and maybe advertising will return. Or something. My response would be, how well has that worked as an economic plan so far?
Would papers somehow be in worse shape if they had never allowed comments the last 10 years? Of course not. Not saying they'd be in any better condition, but it's nearly impossible to believe the financial situation and future of the industry would look bleaker. But at least people wouldn't have to feel like they need to shower after looking at the website. At least the papers would maintain some level of self-respect.
Countless stories bring out people who use the comments section to simply ridicule the paper itself, to say, "I'm glad this paper's going under. Looosers. Commie rag." What other industry lets people post on their own websites their feelings about how terrible the product is?
Comments get discussion going, advocates say. So what? If someone wants to discuss the story, they can copy and paste a link or part of the text on whatever message board, personal web site or blog they like to visit. It happens thousands of times a day and good discussions do take place. And the bad discussions? Let the comment sewage find a home on another site.
I can count on my right hand how many rational, thoughtful, inspiring, wise comment threads I've read on a paper's website. And I'm only using the count-on-one-hand cliche because I'm assuming at some point I have seen a worthwhile discussion but simply forgot about it, although the truth is I probably haven't read any.
Many papers now moderate the comments, deleting offensive posts or at least trying to play referee. Meaning already understaffed papers devote crucial employees to a task that a judge wouldn't even make prisoners do, for fear the Supreme Court would strike the sentence down as cruel and unusual.
Some papers - like the Minneapolis Star Tribune - only allow comments on certain stories. So the paper knows that certain stories about politics or a death bring out the absolute worst spellers and humans, yet is fine with allowing those same people to simply migrate to other stories, that in theory won't spark as many emotions, but still always do.
Others make people register, but all that means is they can use a fake email address instead of just logging in as "anonymous."
Papers allow online comments that would never appear in the traditional letters to the editor section. Why? Because...no one knows yet how to deal with this whole Internet thing, because...more eyeballs looking at the web site is a good thing, no matter how evil those eyes are, because...we want the community to have good discussions. Each explanation makes less sense than the previous one.
Forget the ick factor. Or the fact these bottom-of-the-barrel comments really do nothing for the bottom line. They can also have a negative effect on reporters just trying to do their jobs. A few months ago, Star Tribune writer Jon Tevlin told David Brauer that some of his sources are actually fearful of speaking on the record, because they don't want to expose themselves to the vitriol that accompanies the stories online. Tevlin wrote to Brauer after a commenter called a source in one of his stories a pedophile, despite the fact the person was, uh, not a pedophile.
Reporters struggle to get people to talk because that's the nature of the job. The last thing they need is people having to fear being taken apart for no reason on a site that's read by thousands or even millions of people.
So to conclude: Comments have done nothing to help papers financially. If papers were thriving and hiring thousands instead of dumping thousands - and the money brought in from people reading the site and commenting had a major part in it - I could see there being a vigorous debate about what to do with comments. But they haven't.
And they make people not want to talk to reporters. And they make many people not want to even look at stories for fear of what the comments might say. And when people do read them, they make people sad or upset or inspire them to write their own hateful rant.
No one knows what the future holds for newspapers, or even if there is one. But even if they survive and eventually thrive again, the entire industry will suffer in some form as long as the delusional and hateful have a home on their websites.