The New Haven Independent is a strong model for local journalism for three reasons, in my opinion:
- The news judgment and journalistic chops of founder Paul Bass and the team he’s built over the years.
- Their strong connections to the community and seamless engagement in community dialogue and solution-seeking.
- The participation of their audience at every step in the process, from story idea, to reporting, to editing, reaction and follow-up.
It’s a formula we have tried to emulate at our newspapers in Connecticut, bringing transparency to our process and investing in community engagement both in terms of resources and focus.
So it was like a needle scratching across a vinyl record yesterday to read that Paul was shutting down story comments on the site.
How can the community be part of your journalism if you don’t even allow them to comment on what you do?
The Independent has had a pretty tightly moderated story comment system that has been praised by media critic Dan Kennedy and for several years stood in stark contrast to the New Haven Register’s “everything goes up and is policed after the fact” policy. We changed that policy in the fall and now have basically the same system as the Independent. You can still comment anonymously, but every comment is screened in advance by our staff and we have a set of rules and guidelines for those commenting and for moderators.
Paul Bass said in his explanation about shutting off comments that he’s noticed the tone getting worse, even with moderation, and was stung by a recent incident in which a nasty comment accidentally made it up on the site. (We’ve seen this kind of human error happen, too, for sure … especially with the large volume of comments we’re dealing with.) He said:
“Is this the long-awaited new dawn of democracy and accountability we thought we were helping to help spark in New Haven by launching the Independent in 2005? Or are we contributing to the reflexively cynical, hate-filled discourse that has polluted American civic life? Are we reviving the civic square? Or managing a sewer with toxic streams that demoralize anyone who dares to take part in government or citizen activism?”
In his column, Paul suggested that the Independent was taking a “break” from story comments, hinting that perhaps after regrouping they would be back with either a renewed moderation effort or a different system.
But he also suggests that maybe they shouldn’t exist at all, and that perhaps the conversation happening via social media on Independent stories has or can replace the very concept of story comments.
There are so many problems with the latter argument. What a way to speed alienation and distrust in your audience – to say that they can “go elsewhere” to react, challenge or add context to your journalism. And you’re not even saying that you’ll be joining them “over there” (and if that discussion is happening on individual Facebook pages, you won’t necessarily even have access). Because (implied) you don’t care what they have to say and don’t believe they have anything to contribute.
To me, this is the “anti-New Haven Independent” philosophy of news. It goes against so much of what has made that organization great.
(And P.S. – just because the conversation happens on social media, with verified identities, doesn’t mean it will be any less nasty. Have you followed Facebook and Twitter conversations lately?)
So I’m hoping that, indeed, this is a very short “break” that will allow Paul Bass and the New Haven Independent to come up with a better model for story comment and on-site engagement … maybe something we can learn from once again.
Mathew Ingram is far more articulate than I in defending the existence of story comments and in making the case that anonymous comments have value. But I wonder if the Independent will go to a system such as a Facebook plug-in (requiring you to comment with your Facebook ID) or take it a step further and switch to the old letters-to-the-editor-style verified identity system that has been used at the Lewiston Sun Journal in Maine and advocated by Howard Owens, another leader in creating a sustainable hyperlocal model.
Shutting off comments (for good, I mean … I respect the Independent’s decision to “pause and hit the reset button”) deals with abusive commenters and a toxic environment the way that cutting your arm off would deal with a skin rash.
The ability to comment is at step one in building a relationship of trust and collaboration with our audience. Preventing the jerks from pissing all over that platform is step two. We’re not there yet, but building a better sense of community (which must involve injection of more real identity commenting, but doesn’t necessarily have to preclude anonymous) and constant and quality engagement in story comments by our reporters and editors should follow.