I was still a reporter at the Billings Gazette when that newspaper’s online edition began accepting comments from readers.
That development nearly sparked a revolt among the reporters. It wasn’t a case of our being afraid of criticism, of having our mistakes pointed out, or even of seeing our crystalline prose lampooned.
We mostly objected to having our work hijacked. You could spend hours and hours on a story, doing research, making dozens of phone calls, checking and rechecking facts, then carefully constructing a story with as few words and as much clarity as possible.
Then it would be posted on the Gazette’s website. Within three minutes—too short a time for anyone to have read the full story—some half-wit with a handle like “troglodyke” or “shitsandgiggles” would log on and make a patently false statement about the subject of the story.
For the rest of the day, a stable of regular commenters would argue over that falsehood, further distorting the story while insulting one another in ever-cruder terms.
We found it maddening that after we had been so careful to get everything right, our paper gave a platform to commenters who cared nothing for accuracy, common sense or the English language.
And so we’d rail, whine and fulminate during our weekly newsroom meetings, all to no avail. What we were told, basically, was that the internet had changed everything. It was like hail or high winds: there was nothing you could do but hunker down and endure it.
So that’s what we did. We endured it, just as we had learned to live with shameful innovations like paid obituaries, ads on the front page and “advertorials” masquerading as news stories.
The Gazette’s commenting policy has been tweaked and modified many times since those early days, but reading the comments under stories can still be a discouraging, depressing experience, especially if the story deals with Native Americans, climate change, or, God forbid, evolution by natural selection.
Not that the Gazette is any worse than 10,000 other sites that feature reader comments. You give people a platform and anonymity and a certain percentage of them are just going to be rude, obnoxious and nasty.
The phenomenon is rarely seen on sites the size of Last Best News, where it also helps that we have, in a sense, a community of readers. Even on our Facebook page the tone is almost always civil. For the Gazette and similar sites, the craziness and the vitriol in their comment sections aren’t half as bad as the verbal bloodletting that takes place on their Facebook pages.
It was with all of those considerations in mind that I read last week about the decision by National Public Radio to end, as of this past Tuesday, story-page comments on NPR.org. In a column announcing the new policy, Scott Montgomery, managing editor for digital news at NPR, was quite diplomatic.
He said nothing of what surely lay behind NPR’s decision—that a large majority of NPR employees had finally had enough of lending their credibility and of handing over a prized forum to people who had done nothing to earn either.
Instead, Montgomery said that much has changed since “NPR introduced public comments to its website eight years ago, when many of today’s most popular venues for digital interaction didn’t yet exist or were in their infancy.” After much discussion and experimentation, he went on, the powers that be at NPR “concluded that the comment sections on NPR.org stories are not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of our users.”
He backed that statement up with an amazing statistic: “Only 2,600 people have posted at least one comment in each of the last three months—0.003% of the 79.8 million NPR.org users who visited the site during that period.”
Of course, his premise is that the comment sections were always intended to be ways for readers and listeners to interact with NPR and one another, because he devotes most of his column to listing all the other outlets for “community engagement” that NPR offers.
For an outfit so large, partly funded by public dollars and devoted to appearing calm and rational even when the rest of society resembles a three-ring circus on meth, that is probably a wise approach to take.
But here is what I would have said, in his position:
We know that many thousands of other readers delve into the ravings of that 0.003 percent, but that doesn’t make it a healthy thing to do, either for individuals or the society at large.
It finally struck us as foolish to dedicate so much time and so many resources to promoting civil discussion and encouraging critical thinking—and then to turn over a large chunk of our virtual real estate to people who would much rather start a fire than put one out.
We are strong believers in free speech, but not to the point of giving a platform to a minuscule fraction of the people who visit our website. Everyone we employ to provide content for NPR.org worked long and hard for the privilege of being thus employed. We encourage all our readers to work just as hard to gain that privilege here or at a website established and funded by some other worthy party.
Better yet, start your own website. Cream rises to the top, and surely the brilliance you’ve always believed yourself to possess will be recognized by millions, who will reward you accordingly.
Best of luck.