While there are plenty of lessons from the Press Herald Apology (or “Apologygate if you’re looking for a hashtag), one that stuck out to me is what exactly is the role of reader comments in the editorial process?
One of my complaints about the whole affair is that by issuing an apology, particularly to all those voicing their anger over Facebook, Twitter, email and online comments, the Press Herald had “cede(ed) editorial control to the crowd.”
But how should newspapers use reader comments when it comes to making decisions on coverage, story placement or even the reporting process?
(For the moment let’s set aside the other debates on comments, meaning we won’t talk about whether they’re worthwhile or how to improve them. Though former Press Herald colleague Carl Natale has a good idea on how to try and make them civil`.)
The easiest answer is tips and story ideas, as evidenced by this blog post. In the previous post on L’Affair de Press Herald, a commenter said something that stuck in my head:
“And I disagree with you, in that in our web 2.0 world with all of its new interactions between big institutions and their constituents, in a world of declining circulation, and in a world of crowdsourcing, that all newspapers are missing the boat here by retaining 100% control over what stories are reported.”
(Thanks to the commenter who wrote that…but next time think about leaving your name for credit! Also, can we not use the phrase Web 2.0? Please?)
No one ever likes the kid who stomps his feet and says “I’m taking my ball and going home.”
But somehow newspapers have become that kid, especially when it comes to online comments on their website.
Sure, that may be too simplistic an explanation, but consider this: Newspapers made the decision a while ago set comments loose and when they didn’t turn out the way they like they started threatening to end the whole game.
It’s no secret that online comments on news sites can be a babbling pool of filth, ignorance and bad grammar, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that some are considering doing away with comments or drastically changing how they handle them.
In a recent article in the American Journalism Review Rem Rieder argues that it’s long past time to end comments permanently.
The crux of his argument is this: Newspapers don’t have the resources or the time, and comments have proven to be nothing but trouble anyway.
But Rieder and others looking to shut down comments seem to miss one point, which is that comments are lowest impact way for newspapers to offer the community a way to interact with them. And if you shut that off you’re making a conscious decision to walk away from connecting with readers.