New Haven Independent shuts down story comments, leaving a two-legged stool

8 Feb

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.

55 Responses to “New Haven Independent shuts down story comments, leaving a two-legged stool”

  1. Dr. Avery Jenkins February 8, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    I agree that, in general, newspaper comment sections are where brain cells and common sense go to die. Nonetheless, I think they do fulfill an imporant need for both the community and the newspaper.

    I think the key is to require real identities. You aren’t going to stop all of the stupid (haters gonna hate, yo) but it does make one think twice about the potential ramifications of what you are saying. Especially if you live in a small community, as I do, and my neighbors and patients are likely to see my comments in all of their blazing idiocy.

  2. Paul Bass February 8, 2012 at 10:32 am #

    Great column, Matt! Thank you. Great argument, and great writing. Gives us a lot to think about. Whatever we choose, I promise you we will always care very much what readers think about what we’re doing and strive to make readers’ input and participation crucial to what we do. We aim to continue to try to innovate. Not to mention catch our breath.

    • cedarhillresident (aka Rebecca Turcio cuz I have nothing to hide) February 8, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

      😦 I need a hug Paul! I would use my real name if need be. I am going through withdraw! Paul I credit the NHI for some many positive changes in this city. Your paper has united many of us (who would never have crossed paths) to work together on so many things! Your balls, gave us balls! (yes dan I can get a little offensive in my post 🙂 I have seen a few suggestions on how to make this better. I like the one were you can not post for a week after signing up and your first so many get monitored. (I promise not to use the F word any more !)

      • Paul Bass February 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

        Here comes a hug direct to you.

    • Ed Stannard February 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm #

      Hi Paul, I have to say I was really shocked to hear your decision and hope you bring them back. I think it really does go against what you’ve been trying to do at the Indy, which I admire.

  3. Sven Martson February 8, 2012 at 12:30 pm #

    Many readers may not remember that Paul Bass once wrote a column for the New Haven Advocate aptly entitled “Hit and Run”. Protected at the time by a lack of opportunity for immediate rebuttal, he routinely trashed public officials and private citizens alike. Long before the establishment of the NHI he “contributed to the reflexively cynical, hate-filled discourse that has polluted American civic life”, on an ongoing weekly basis. I remember some people who “bore the brunt of his vicious comments” and “in some cases, hurt people deeply” to whom he never apologized, publicly or even privately. Ironically, those who would “take part in government or citizen activism” were often among his targets.

    • Paul Bass February 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

      As to Sven’s point: He has been hounding me for 20 years because of one article in which he was a subject. Contrary to his point made here, he and his allies had ample time to respond — directly at the time in the letters section of the publication that printed the article (the New Haven Advocate), and then in endless vicious personal attacks he has made sure to contribute, sometimes by name, sometimes not, at every place I’ve worked. That’s part of the job. I know. And he makes good points I like to listen to (when he’s not threatening to punch me out, which he did once, and when I can wade through the name-calling he relies on so often). But I also admit that the cumulative effect of Sven Martsons dominating comments sections is part of what has made me reexamine if they have much value for people beyond a small group of hateful obsessives who direct their rage on unrelated targets. (PS He’s a very good artist.)

      • mattderienzo February 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

        Paul, thanks for responding on that one.

      • Sven Martson February 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm #

        Yes, we did respond in the NHA letters section, but what good was that a week after the fact when most people had forgotten about it. In the NHI people have had a chance to make immediate rebuttals and commentaries at the site of the article when the facts are fresh.

        Granted, some comments are uselessly nasty, but you’ve always been able to weed them out (including mine). Perhaps it’s time to add staff to take care of the problem. When I posted my previous comment here I also tried to post the same comment on the sites you linked to in the NHI but I wasn’t able to do so because they’re Facebook sites and I’m not a member. I don’t think the social networks are the answer. They may seem public but they seem more like cliques to me.

      • ocjo February 13, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

        I know nothing about this story about Sven, but the question I would ask is one that seeks more precision: Is he “hounding” you merely because he was the subject of a story or was there something about the story he objected to?

        I don’t know many people who hold a grudge for 20 years just because they are subject of a story. Usually — rightly or wrongly — they feel there was something unfair or inaccurate.

  4. The Rev. Mr. Samuel T. Ross-Lee February 8, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    Were there some clear and objective standard applied to Bass’ concerns about comments written in response to NHI articles and in response to other commenters, his goal of moderating the conversation in a fair way might be fulfilled.

    His insistence on making this about “tone” is inevitably going to fail. “Tone” is subjective and is biased by the cultural, social, political, and yes, racial perspective of the person(s) judging it.

    You can NEVER be fair to all of your readings trying to moderate their “tone”, or your take on their tone. Banning outright profanity or racist, misogynist and homophobic words and rants is one thing, but attempting to regulate ‘tone”? Yeah, let me know how that works out for you.

    • New Haven February 8, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

      I agree with Rev Lee. I will also point out that some of the frustrations I have seen expressed about the comment section, particularly among folks who think some of the comments are “over the top,” have to do entirely with the fact that so many of the readers are upper-class professionals. This demographic seems to fail to comprehend that there are people in the world with viewpoints different from their own, heavily privileged and biased, worldview.

    • Paul Bass February 8, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

      I agree with Rev. Lee. That’s a real dilemma for me. I think his point about the arbitrariness in trying to regulate tone is spot on. He has pointed that out directly on our site, and he has been correct in my view. So I’m wondering how we should proceed. The incessant negativity of the past few months really got to me — wondering why we’d want to publish something that relentlessly is yelling at and insulting anyone in public life, or anyone who chooses to live in New Haven. I don’t see the value in that.

      • mattderienzo February 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm #

        Here’s the hypothetical progression that we struggle with, and why so much is a gray area:

        Commenter 1: The mayor’s budget proposal is stupid.

        Commenter 2: Yes, you’d have to be a real moron to propose it.

        Commenter 3: Yah! The mayor is a moron!

        Commenter 4: No, you’re a moron!

        If you don’t know when the line is crossed in the above (and often, we struggle with that), pretty soon you have a toxic environment, even with a moderated comments system in place.

      • Dan Kennedy February 14, 2012 at 7:40 pm #

        Matt: Hilarious! I think you’ve hit up upon the ur-comment thread.

  5. Good Riddance February 8, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

    You are so right. Paul can at times be a hypocrite. He’s allowed some of the regulars to slander public officials with impugnity. Surprised to see that the comments section was closed due to a comment about the economic development official. A few years back he used the bully pulpit that is NHI to unfairly trash the then new-to-town economic development administrator when she denied him easy access to her office and her inner thoughts.

    Without a doubt, the NHI is a valauble resources to the community. I, for one, read it everyday. The State of City blog was the last straw for me, however. To read the comments of some of the bloggers was downright depressing. The vitriol and cynicism from the self-proclaimed thought-leaders (enabled by Paul) was altogether unecessary and distracting.

    • New Haven February 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

      “self-proclaimed thought-leaders”

      Attitudes like these reveal precisely why more, and better, public comment sections are needed.

  6. Paul Bass February 8, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    Matt I wanted to clarify something. You wrote: “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.” I care deeply about feedback. If theoretically there were no comments, we would still want people to email us instantly if they disagree with us, have other information for a story, or have any feedback at all. We’re very visible in the community; we don’t hide. Nor do we want to. I agree with your point that not having comments would cut off one important source of feedback. I just wanted to clarify that I very much do not believe that people should go elsewhere to give us feedback or to be involved in the news. I’m trying to figure out what the most constructive and doable way is for people to be involved in the NHI.

    • mattderienzo February 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

      I hope I made the point that your reputation on that front is unquestioned. Maybe if anyone can pull that off (being seen as open to feedback and getting it without story comments), it’s you.

      I’m coming from such a background and mindset of traditional media and the transitions that we need to make, and it colors what I write. Most legacy media institutions do not have the benefit of the doubt on this and would be sending that message if they shut off comments.

    • mattderienzo February 9, 2012 at 10:11 am #

      Paul, I’ve been thinking about this some more, and I don’t think it’s as simple as being accessible to feedback via email and social media, which I’m sure you would be.
      Two things:
      I think sites like ours and sites like yours have had/should have a role in providing citizens to organize themselves. So it’s about more than just feedback between them and us, but also communication among each other.
      Second, feedback without transparency is a lot different than what story comment sections provide. You might be super accessible via email or by phone, but as far as the community knows, you are systematically ignoring strong feedback about one particular area. If it’s out in the open, they can trust your accessibility and response a lot more.

    • Jmills February 9, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

      You might try refraining from sending personally ridiculing hostile emails to a poster on your site (not anonymous) who questions news decisions or criticizes your decisions as an editor — that could be a great first step in rising above this cesspool of cynicism you seem to feel is taking the pleasure out of reporting the news. Don’t be part of the problem.

      I question the characterization of your organization as particularly transparent in this editorial as well.

  7. Ralph February 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    I find it surprising that comments are an issue – at the NH Independent, the commenters as a rule have more lucid points than other sites – to see ridiculous and over the top comments, go to most political blogs (left and right). I never saw a problem in the Independent with comments…

  8. Sheila McCreven February 8, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    Very thoughtful reflections, Matt. Thank you for posting — and thank you Paul (I assume) for posting a link to this as well as other ad hoc “comment venues” on the Indy homepage today. I was perplexed at how we readers could “follow” the story without the Indy comments functioning this morning. I am willing to jump around searching out postings for this story — but I can’t imagine all the effort to do this for every interesting story I read on the Indy (there are just too many!). 🙂

  9. Paul Ferrino February 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    There are many good reasons for Mr. Bass to keep the comments section of the NHI. One of the most important is speaking truth to power. For some reason, human beings usually become corrupt in their applications of political power. This is a lesson of history and also a main lesson of Political Science 101. Our local government officials are not exempt from this historical lesson. The comments section of the NHI, and others, are a vital part of public information democratization. I hope that Mr. Bass continues to publish reader comments about current events in our community.

  10. Noteworthy February 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    Without the comments section, the NHI and every other publication becomes a linear, one way flat media in a world that is anything but flat or one way. Corporations, the city and state government are all stuffed with paid spokesmen who spend their days massaging the message, denying the undeniable and playing hide and seek with the truth. What readers have is a few moments here and there to read and respond, or not to respond. The mayor can use his bully pulpit to outright lie, to denigrate taxpayers and bully companies and uses the press when he does. When we viscerally react to that or to some other City Hall or state initiative, we should not need to worry about tone or civility. It’s our opinion and we should be free to speak it provided it adheres to a basic set of rules. The key is to define those rules and let the marketplace govern the site.

    I do not think people should have to post using their real names. When we do and when we hold an unpopular opinion or when we are successful enough at communicating it, there can be unwanted retribution.

    The answer is somewhere in the middle. Publish the rules, require a sign in with a real email address that is verified. The person behind the name must give up their identity to the publication even if they choose to publish under an alias. Then, just let it rip. I enjoy the comments as much as the articles. Even the horrible comments are amusing. The rest of them are educational, enlightening and at very least, expose to the world a different perspective. I think that’s vitally important to preserve even if it’s uncomfortable, especially in a world where increasingly, those with money, power and connections control so much including the message.

    • New Haven February 8, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

      Spot on.

    • cedarhillresident February 9, 2012 at 7:15 am #

      I am going to argee with noteworthy. I use cedarhillresident as my name. And most people that are regulars know who I am. But a good example was when the ID card first came out and I was defending it. I was getting attacked hard by people who were not regular posters, some to me were scary people. I in no way would of wanted ANY of them to know who I am. I know who noteworthy is, I know who many of the posters are(even robn now 🙂 But the fake name protect us from the extreme people that pop in and post..( mostly story about immigrants)
      And I agree the comment section allows you to see what others think…good or bad. It has been an valuable tool for democracy in a city were there is little left.
      remember creating fake emails is easy…I have 4 fake FB pages that I use during election time 🙂

  11. benberkowitzBen February 8, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

    Insightful Matt and love the two legged stool analogy. I think a pause and reset is good and a strong look at what works is best. Using humans to filter every comment is unreasonable as a site grows its community unless those humans are your readers.

    The latter requires algorithmic authority that mimics what makes social interactions in real life generally respectful.

    I have more thoughts on this over here:

    • mattderienzo February 8, 2012 at 10:04 pm #

      Ben, you’re probably right in terms of nationally scale-able sites like See Click Fix. But I don’t agree that it’s unreasonable for local news sites to commit human resources to story comment moderation.
      At the Register, we have 10-12 editors involved in moderation. Of course, that’s not what they do full-time. If audience and community engagement is important, I don’t see it as a waste of resources at all for staff to be reading comments, questions and reactions to what we do, but rather, a valuable part of their workflow – a continuation of the story process.

      • William Kurtz February 9, 2012 at 8:00 am #

        It’s not unreasonable; it might very well be unfeasible. Even in its withered state, the staff of the Register is substantially larger than the staff of the Independent. And let’s not overlook the fact that the contrast between the reader discussions in the two publications seems to have played a large role in shaming the Register into cleaning theirs up. Nice job on that, by the way.

        The NHI editors get it right far more often than they get it wrong, and when they get it wrong, they fix it quickly. Even the best goalie lets one by every now and then.

        There are a bunch of ways around this problem:

        1. tiered system. Let people register with real, or at least verifiable identities and then don’t moderate them before they’re posted. I, for one, always post under my own, complete name. One reason is that it tempers that occasional urge towards incivility. One a few (fewer than 5) occasions, I’ve had something excised by the editors–I plead guilty to snarkiness in the 2nd from time to time but I am pretty sure I have never written anything libelous or patently offensive but am willing to take responsibility for anything I say.

        2. Go back to the old-fashioned ‘letters’ page. For years newspapers have had no problem requiring people to identify themselves when they wrote in, even if the writer’s name was ‘withheld’.

        3. Publish fewer, rather than more, comments. Create a rubric objective standards with identifiable indicators and benchmarks and hold every comment up against that to see if it meets the standard. Is it on topic? Does it contain unverifiable insinuations? Are the concrete assertions supported by facts? Does it contain insulting language? Is it just a repeat of something said earlier? I am writing this on the fly right now but would be happy to be more detailed about what I mean and help create a draft. But maybe the idea is that rather than choosing which comments to reject, the editors choose the ones to accept.

        That’s not an exhaustive list, by any means.

        Anyway, good luck. It would be a shame to see that forum disappear.

      • mattderienzo February 9, 2012 at 9:01 am #

        The Register is looking at a platform that will hopefully be launched later this year that would, indeed, allow a tiered system. Once a commenter establishes a strong track record of commenting responsibly, the system allows editors to “whitelist” them, which would allow comment screeners to focus on those who are either questionable or new. (And, of course, the whitelisting could be removed at any time if they were to later abuse it.)

    • ocjo February 13, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

      I am perplexed. Did Paul first alert friends with websites so they would be ready to to weigh in on it and publicize it immediately, as soon as he released his news?

      Because Ben, you managed to have all these thoughts, write about them and post them on your website by 3:12 pm on Feb 7, no more than 60 seconds after Paul posted his announcement, which is marked as posted at 3:11 pm on Feb 7.

  12. Darnell February 9, 2012 at 9:46 am #

    As a sometimes a victim of those sometimes unfair, untrue, and vicious slanders, I still believe that the comments section of NHI adds value to the public discourse in New Haven. Though I did sometimes wonder how some comments did get in and stay in.

    As a personal example, there is a writer on the NHI comments section who consistently claimed that I would “pull out the race card” in my public debates at the Board of Aldermen. This person even went so far as to claim that I filed a complaint against a city employee and in said complaint referred to this person as a member of the KKK. The truth is that not once did I ever make any argument or debate, public or otherwise, on race merits, or accuse anyone of being a member of any race hate organization, including the KKK. In other words, I NEVER pulled the race card. Yet, when I pointed out this repeated lie in my responses, it was never acknowledged by the NHI that in fact the writer was not telling the truth, nor in most instances their comments were allowed to remain on the site.

    As a public official, I clearly understood that some positions that I took would generate some hostility, so much so that I also knew that my life expectancy as an elected official would not be long, and I did not mind being disliked or raked over the coals for the stands I took. I also understood that these kind of untrue stories would circulate through the “grapevine”, and I could not ever expect to respond to all the negative or untrue stories, particularly since the persons telling them knew they were untrue and of course it would not make a difference. What was disappointing was that there was no attempt to make the writer prove what they were writing, over and over again, especially when the comments were so slanderous / libelous. I know a lot of other stuff was caught before they went to press, and of course I am thankful for that, but it doesn’t make the pain of seeing the stuff that gets through less hurtful.

    Despite all of that, I still believe that the comments section of NHI holds much value, and would gladly continue to take a little (or sometimes a lot) of pain to see the public discourse to continue.

    Paul, please make the “no comments” hiatus a short one.

    • Paul Bass February 9, 2012 at 10:53 am #

      Thank you Darnell. I think this comment is an example of how we were falling down on the job.

      • Darnell February 9, 2012 at 11:08 am #

        Yes Paul, you guys may have stumbled a little, but as someone who personally felt the pain, it wasn’t so painful enough to shut down process completely. And sometimes we just have to grin and bear i :). Don’t take to much time to get it up and running again, please.

  13. Jack Zibluk, Ph.D. February 9, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    democracy and free speech are by nature messy. I have gotten my share of nasty-grams for even the most innocuous columns and stories. Even the ugly ones make me think. I worry that turning off the comments just send them underground into a twisted cyber echo chamber. At least in an open forum, you have the opportunity to respond and debate.
    BTW, as a former New Haven-based journalist, I am a long-time fan of Paul, and as a former suburban editor, I understand the desire to take a break. I just hope it’s a short one.

  14. Sam_piroton (@sam_piroton) February 9, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    I really like the idea of “fact checking” the comments. if true, stays online. if wrong, then removed from the comment section, and developped into their very own post, demonstrating why it was wrong.
    But yeah… quite more demanding than just go to a grid-checking process…

    I’m also curious about how Steve Buttry would weigh in…

  15. Bill February 10, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    Since the NHI is severely biased, the comments section was the only placed to get both sides of a story.

  16. Peter Zenger February 11, 2012 at 10:47 am #

    Ironic and hypocritical that Bass is participating here in the type of discourse he is now banning at NHI.

    This is the Internet, get over it, and yourself.

    Are you for SOPA too?

    NHI’s new slogan: “This is your community, read all about what I want you to read about it.”

  17. Grateful February 11, 2012 at 7:49 pm #

    We should be grateful that the NHI is in existence. Our commenting, while helpful in some cases, served to feed our ego, let’s face it. We would read the article while thinking what “AWESOME COMMENT can I write to impress my local community and validate my community activism!?!”. Tell me I am wrong about our ego.

    The Staff at NHI deserves a break from moderating our Ego…. so they can concentrate on writing good, wholesome, full-spectrum articles. Many communities do not have this luxury: a genuinely decent, effective, online newspaper.

    • Paul Ferrino February 12, 2012 at 11:34 am #

      I think “Grateful” correct. My ego is definitely involved in posting. However, my experiences in public education, and in life, absolutely motivate me to elucidate on NHI. There is so much that is hidden from view and our kids are dying in our streets. This should not be allowed to continue. Imagine if you were an alien monitoring the culture of New Haven, Ct., USA, North America, Planet Earth, and you observed the mayhem on New Haven’s streets, and you observed the adult’s inability to change the situation. What would you conclude? Exactly. And after a well-deserved break, I hope Mr. Bass and his staff continue to allow citizens to express their views as before. At least until our “alien” observes a saner culture in our city. I hope this is not my ego talking.

      • Paul Bass February 13, 2012 at 7:56 am #

        Thanks for your comment. This is an important point in my opinion. On the one hand I look at what comments sections produce and — despite the many thoughtful and fun stuff many of our readers post — overall they rarely add much to the debate. They soak up the staff’s time and energy while usually adding just harshness to the world. On the other hand, the NHI comments section is currently the only place in New Haven where teachers, students and parents can speak honestly and openly about the most important public policy issue facing the city. That’s because they have been given the unmistakeable message by people in charge that their feedback is welcome only if it follows a p.r. script and that, in some cases, there will be repercussions if they exercise their right to free speech. So that leaves us with a real dilemma as we wrestle with this question.

  18. The Rev. Mr. Samuel T. Ross-Lee February 13, 2012 at 11:11 am #

    To the Editor of THIS comment section:

    While this is a nuanced aspect of the main topic of this discussion thread, I think it is important to contemplate. Consider it an Open Letter to the New Haven media outlets c/o Paul Bass, if you will.


    I find it absolutely amazing that people like you keep openly admitting that publicly elected officials are violating citizens’ right to free speech by threatening to take away said citizens’ jobs and that there is virtually nothing done about this travesty. As an investigative journalist (that’s what you are, right?) shouldn’t you be investigating, and reporting the results of specific incidences of this kind of behavior? Shouldn’t this kind of thing be bought to the forefront and people be held accountable for this culture of trampling on citizens’ constitutional rights? Why is this behavior seemingly accepted as simply a quirky part of New Haven’s culture?

    While every community in this country has its “thing” that defines it, the thing that makes this country a nation is that we all have, by law, rights that must be protected from violation by the low and the powerful. The media, that so-called Forth Wall of Government, supposedly exist in this nation to do what individual citizens can’t do when it comes to exposing the habits of the government. Allowing citizens the opportunity to comment on that behavior is a good (and perhaps, necessary) thing. But citizens’ comments cannot serve as replacements for the Forth Wall. Average citizens have neither the time nor the resources to investigate and expose the government’s behavior that is inconsistent with protecting and upholding our rights. Hence, the reason for the media, at its best, in the first place.

    The NHI’s return to the practice of allowing “Reader Comments” is penultimate at best (if it’s even that) in the over all good of what you should be doing. Exposing the violation of citizens’ rights by the government and demanding that it stops, or that those government officials participating in this behavior be removed is the ultimate good that your news outlet can perform. Simply noting that there is a culture of violating our fellow citizen’s rights by the government is really not acceptable.

  19. JMills February 13, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

    At the end of January I noticed a story in the NHI about the retirement of New Haven Police Officer Joe Avery, who had, until about a year ago, been public information officer (PIO) for the New Haven Police Dept. The PIO is the main liaison to the press from New Haven Police.

    I felt the story was not fair and accurate and I composed a comment to be posted under my name on the NHI site. His performance as PIO was described in the article and although I agreed with some of it, I did not wholly agree because I felt the facts simply did not support it

    That comment was not posted as of Feb 2 and I stated my intention to Paul of publicizing it elsewhere with a link to the NHI story.

    Below is a link to the story in the NHI and an excerpt containing most of my comment, representing the crux of the proposed comment. It is clearly appropriate to a story about Avery’s performance. For several reasons I do not believe I am ‘hijacking’ this thread by posting this here, on Connecticut Newsroom’s entry on NHI suspending reader comments.

    —-Excerpt of proposed comment, which was censored by the NHI:

    In 2009 after the disappearance of Yale student Annie Le, I was assigned for the first time to cover a NHPD story. I was working on a freelance basis for Agence France-Presse.

    Prior to this, I had some history of harassment by NHPD, for what, at times, they explicitly said was because I was a journalist. One retired NHPD officer said he thought I should be arrested because journalists hate cops (I never did, but never mind).

    Another trumped up a bogus report about misbehavior when I was on my way into court on my daily court rounds as a journalist.

    Another NHPD officer retaliated for stories about his DUI that I did not write, but which he thought I had something to do with. Over the course of over a year, he stated repeatedly that he thought this, and warned me, “What comes around goes around.”

    Before the Annie Le story I had very limited but very cordial contact with Joe Avery. He helped me set up the block watch on my street and we really found him helpful. At one point he asked me if I would serve as the city-wide block watch coordinator for New Haven, a position I had to decline.

    But during the Annie Le case, I found I could not get myself on the list for press releases. I chalked it up mostly to the overwhelming numbers of reporters who covered the case, except for one snide comment by an officer suggesting I might not get into a press conference.

    I was experienced covering the courts so I did not miss much anyway, but I must say, that I learned about one imminent press conference in the Le case by overhearing reporters talk about it in Willoughby’s coffee shop. I made it to the press conference on time, even on my bicycle.

    Months went by. Avery continued to promise he would put me on the press list, and often said I actually was on the press list. He suggested that my email program wasn’t working. In all my years I had never had this supposed email problem and wasn’t having it with anyone else who sent press releases..

    I have been on dozens of press release lists for many years without any real problems.

    Finally, I made a special push – entirely by email — to be put on the list in 2010 at which time Avery slipped up. I drilled this time. I arranged to receive his daily releases from others and engaged in a polite email exchange with him over the course of a week or two. After receiving a press release from someone else, I emailed Avery asking if I was on the list. He said I was but that I hadn’t received anything because he hadn’t sent any – there were none. I forwarded him one I received that he claimed did not exist and expressed to him my wonder that this was being done to me as after all, we had always been cordial with each other. I cc’d it all to Rob Smuts et al.

    Avery did not answer except to place me on the list, immediately, and I have remained on the list ever since.

    After the email proof the fun ended. The chief had a talk with Avery about it, according to Rob Smuts. Avery was then taken off the assignment of PR, except to fill in for others who would be taking over that job.

    Since all my communication with Avery in my final push was by email, all of it was documented. No one had to take my word for it because what happened was there in black and white. All a reporter had to do was read them. He had claimed in writing that I was not getting any press releases because there hadn’t been any where meanwhile, of course, there had been and I was receiving copies of them from someone else. Of course, obviously, I could read news stories based on them in the local newspapers every week, day in and day out.

    There was a press meeting in city hall to discuss Avery’s departure from the PR position. Paul Bass attended that meeting as did Bill Kaempffer from the New Haven Register. Both were aware of the emails, and NHI had been sent copies of the emails and had the proof. Bill Kaempffer may also have had them, but I would have to pull the record – I don’t recall. Bill and I corresponded about it.

    Neither of them asked about it in this meeting. I was not surprised because nothing surprises me anymore but I was disgusted.

    The only outlet to feature Avery’s inexplicable press release antics was “The Laurel” the website of journalist Duby McDowell.

    In the scheme of things, there are worse things that an officer can do to harass a journalist. (And that statement, which tends to downplay, says something about how bad harassment can get because withholding press releases alone has formed the basis of successful lawsuits against police departments)

    But Avery’s actions weren’t in isolation, it was adding to my burdens as a journalist. Maybe by itself, it seems harmless fun, but it really isn’t. These are people’s livelihoods and it is a menacing act. One has to struggle against it just to do one’s job.

    The problem of police harassment has grown only more intense, not less, since this time. And a press playing insider baseball, or confounded, or weak on accountability, or a conduit for misinformation, or protecting access – whatever it is — is not only not helping with that, it undermines the trustworthiness of the particular news outlet and the integrity of the press overall.

    I hate to have to place a comment like this on a story about retiring and Joe, I apologize for it, but it has to be said and could have been said and should have been said and done with by NHI and NHR over a year ago. END of comment that was proposed for posting on the Avery story in the NHI.

    • mattderienzo February 13, 2012 at 4:02 pm #

      That was just an excerpt?

      • JMills February 13, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

        1.) I left 2 paragraphs out. and I think one line from another paragraph, roughly.

        2) Paul Bass’s “Time Out” post, announcing he was suspending reader’s comments, is long: go look at it.

        3) Is that all you have to say?

      • mattderienzo February 13, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

        Not trying to pick a fight, but yes, that’s all I have to say. I don’t understand your point.

  20. JMills February 13, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

    Yeah you do, we touched based about this on the phone. A dog and pony show from Bass is enough, a whole concert of spin doctors? no thanks. You all know what you are supposed to do as news people. My feeling is that news people should hew closely to their missions. Re picking a fight — you said it, not me. Not interested. Hoping for the best and keeping the faith. I still believe in journalism.

  21. Grateful February 13, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    Mr. Derienzo just did a good John DeStefano impression!

    Who is Jmills?

  22. The Rev. Mr. Samuel T. Ross-Lee February 13, 2012 at 5:42 pm #

    As the NHI’s coverage of the Government’s violating its citizen’s First Amendment Rights is NOT the primary focus of this thread, I will make no further comment on the topic beyond this one.

    Paul, I think your list of stories here does not make the case very well that you are concerned about this issue. You have listed stories that scatter the issue around, but hardly, if ever, is their sustained focus on the specific government officials who are responsible for the denial of rights. In several of the stories you post here, the focus is on private companies, where government officials are presented as hero who ride in and save the wronged from an abuse of power. But what of the abuse FROM the government officials themselves. And if this activity is on-going, why not focus attention on the issue itself and not simply its mentioning while reporting on a larger issue?

    Let’s be real about this, if this kind of thing is occurring over and over again, then it is a reflection of the governing policy at the top of our system here in New Haven. Give a sustained look at this issue from the top, if you really care to take it seriously. I cannot imagine a series of incidences that violates the rights of American citizens employed by the federal government being perpetuated by the White House and the national news outlets not giving a sustained look and doing a thorough investigation of the president.

    Uh, oh, by bad, they did fail to do so in the months leading up to and immediately following W’s “War On Terror” didn’t they?

    • JMills February 13, 2012 at 5:54 pm #

      I hate to spoon-feed frogs the fly, but we all need that often enough. As a journalist maybe I can read between the lines of another journalist’s posts. And perhaps I can tire readers with intimations.

      therefore …

      My point, in part, was that I agree with Paul Bass’s decision, in a way, to suspend readers comments for long enough to figure out what to do about inconsistently applying the standards readers’ comments should meet.

      And he did say in his Time Out announcement that they have applied them inconsistently. “… we apply our standards inconsistently.”

      Those standard can be inconsistently applied by letting an unacceptably nasty comment slip by as well as by censoring comments that are legitimate.

      Acknowledging that points to a bigger picture of commissions as well as omissions, and to questions about news coverage as well as comments.

  23. JMills February 16, 2012 at 7:45 pm #

    “Get Smarter”

    Today Paul Bass posted a new story about suspending the comment section at the New Haven Independent, called “Commenters Comment on Comments” The excerpt, er story, is rather long, and features some fun video from the old TV Series, “Get Smart.”

    It also contains a jab at my comment above. He states, “A special shout-out to New Haven Register Editor Matt DeRienzo. His provocative blog post sparked some of the best discussion. (It took almost a full week to go off the rails.)”

    I think it is appropriate to have posted a censored comment that was NOT censored because it failed to meet the NHI’s published standards for comments and was NOT censured because it was nasty – racist, misogynistic, etc.

    Paul framed his announcement a certain way and likes to make sure it stays the way he frames it. He expressed dismay at negative, vicious comments and the inability to keep up with them. He said they were applying their standards inconsistently. I thought it was fair to create a fuller picture of how comments were being managed at the NHI by pointing out that nasty as well as non-nasty ones were being excised for reasons that are not always clear at all. I think readers deserve a fuller picture. Without posting an example of a comment he refused to run that did not fall in line with these vicious, bigoted and vulgar ones he alludes to, readers can’t get that picture.

    My expanding and rounding out the discussion, as was obvious to discerning readers, was unwelcome. I think that’s too bad, because it was not meant to create conflict. I took him for his word, on an open discussion.

    I have already said, I think suspending comments is a good thing, at least for a while, because moderating has to be a ton of work, and indeed, the standards are not being applied consistently, and, again, for vulgar or bigoted comments, as he pointed out, as well as others.

    This was “off the rails” for me to do, apparently. If that is “off the rails” I can only be grateful that I jumped off, as was Mrs. Peel, in this episode of the Avengers, because the rail is going where the truth usually does:

    Into the Buzzsaw:
    Adventures Behind the Birkenstock Curtain, courtesy YouTube

    “Do we have a free press today? … when it comes to the real down and dirty stuff — such stories are not even open for discussion.” — Gary Webb

    If you know this, you can monopolize any discussion:
    “How a group becomes a crowd. A human group transforms itself into a crowd when it suddenly responds to a suggestion rather than to reasoning, to an image rather than to an idea, to an affirmation rather than to proof, to the repetition of a phrase rather than to arguments, to prestige rather than to competence.” — Jean-Francois Revel

  24. Maggie February 28, 2012 at 10:19 am #

    While you have us shut down,please contemplate how much the liberalness has to do with your decision. In America we are all entitled to our opinions,at least for now. In print ,hopefully w/o 4 letter words. Sometimes mayor’s are idiots,sometimes journalist’s are and sometime’s the readers get the title.
    If it is all to much for you,shut down the paper completely.Not many of us need the printed media which is in it’s dying days anyhow. I used to love the newspapers,the smell of the ink,the feel of the pages and the words written. Not so much anymore as most of you mock the average persons way of life and almost all this country stands for. The younger generation has already transisitioned to the non printed media. You did it to yourselves folks when you stopped using common sense,logic and truth,and now the last nail in the coffin,stopped listening to anybody but each other and the voices in you heads.

  25. kageprint April 17, 2012 at 7:47 am #

    I will immediately seize your rss feed as I can’t to find your e-mail subscription hyperlink or newsletter service. Do you have any? Please let me know so that I may subscribe. Thanks.

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