Why Newspapers Shouldn't Allow Comments
Let's begin with some truisms: a newspaper is not a blog-not even its online version. Conversely, a blog is not a newspaper. However, newspapers have been in the toilet lately, partly due to the proliferation of blogs. One easy pseudo-solution some newspapers have settled on is to act more and more like blogs. After all, this 2.0 world is all about "You," the user, which in practice means it's all about a false sense of democracy through publication of comments and user-generated content-just like a common blog. After the jump: why newspapers should stop slumming as blogs and disallow comments.
Comments are thought to be an added value to a newspaper's site—providing another reason to read. You come for the article, and stay for the interesting discussion. The only problem is, there is no interesting discussion. Almost never. Not even from the mythical supersmart New York Times readers.
Let's take some examples from the weekend press.
First, there was New York Times reporter David Carr's book excerpt in the NYT Magazine, a reported memoir of his crack addiction, recklessly bad behavior, and subsequent redemption.
Sample comments, notable only in how uneducated and un-thoughtful they were?
"if he wasn't a reporter for the new york times, would we be reading this?"
"Monetizing your shameful past is disgusting. Haven't you harmed your loved ones enough for one lifetime?"
"Who cares. grow some guts. we all have problems. most of us don't blame drugs or alcohol... you want a medal for doing your job and being a father?"
Opening a deeply personal article up to the peanut gallery does these writers a great disservice—and yes, I include Emily Gould here, whose NYT Mag article was similarly pilloried in the comments section. (Thanks for writing; your check is in the mail, and oh—have fun getting senselessly torn apart in the comments. No, there's nothing we can do about it—it's 2.0!)
Some people argue that comments are the modern-day equivalent of the letter to the editor. (Remember when people used to sit down and put five, maybe ten minutes of thought into what they wanted to tell a media outlet?)
A look at a Daily News story says otherwise: they reported over the weekend on a strip club bust, a tangled story that involved some prostitution and possible money-laundering. Readers' reactions in the comments?
"W-h-o-r-e," read one comment, in its entirety. Brilliant!
Perhaps newspapers, if they insist on allowing comments, should use the "letter to the editor" format for their comments. Would "W-h-o-r-e" be a printable letter to the editor in the print version of the Daily News? Probably not. It's not well-argued or intelligent, however succinct. So why allow it as a comment? (Also, why does a news story need to be opened up for comments in the first place?)
You could argue that newspapers should rigorously vet and moderate their comments, or at least require them to use their full names. I'd argue that this is a silly misuse of their time; I'm not suggesting that newspapers should actively patrol their comments, like this and some other websites do. (We're a blog; comments are in our blood.) I'm suggesting they get rid of them altogether. (This doesn't include the blog sections of various papers, which the NYT and Washington Post are stuffed full of.)
Newspapers have more important things to do than worry about comments—like, say, report the stories that blogs so desperately need in their 24-7 quest for content! After all, blogs are often not equipped to regularly break the news, and we need content to chew on.
As Arthur Sulzberger's relation Benjamin Dolnick lamented in the comments section of Carr's NYT story (noticed by Choire Sicha at Radar): "If you ever want to lose faith in humanity, read any comments section on the internet."
P.S. Also, nobody wants to hear the tired old "free speech" argument as a defense of comments. We've had free speech in this country for well over two hundred years, long before it was ever an option to comment on newspaper websites and blogs.