Each passing day teaches me to read the Times-Picayune less and less. Sure it is the only established daily newspaper in this city and employs its share of fine writers, but more information is to be had simply by setting up Google, Yahoo! and NewsGator alerts on New Orleans, talking to friends and neighbors and reading the local bloggers. Yes, the T-P is slow on the uptake (old hat in bold headline print does not breaking news make) and its paid journalists are just plain wrong on several occasions (as recently pointed out by Mark McBride and Ray, and others before). The real rub is nola.com and its latest presentation of news as blog posts.
Blogging isn’t just about typing a piece into a PHP or HTML black box, and publishing it with a Comments box tacked on the end. That’s so 2000. Especially when catering to a large audience, moderation is key. The newly-revamped online version of the Times-Picayune displays the news in various multimedia formats – audio, video, online polls, image galleries – and artistically so. The comments section is, for the most part, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Wedged between outsiders who bark for the demolition of New Orleans in each passing “post” and local trolls who insist on bringing God, Hitler, off-topic rants or some form of bigotry into each thread, it’s impossible to have a decent discussion on that free-for-all forum.
Free-for-all, not free for all – that’s precisely what detracts from the online changes and makes these articles unreadable. News copy does not translate automatically into a blog post if the author or an issue-educated moderator does not
a) keep the discussion on track,
b) warn non-issue-focused free rangers and threaten them with a ban, and
c) maintain against intolerant and crazy-whacko remarks
in the spirit of rational dialogue and information sharing. This is common online large-forum etiquette. While I completely understand that most of the comments are crafted by those ignorant of the rules of internet communication, it is the forum’s responsibility to implement rules, hire a referee and keep the powwow on the up and up. I also comprehend that there is a fine line between deleting comments and censorship, but if a site administrator is not willing to spend the thought, time and energy on such issues, what is the purpose of said forum (other than the appearance of blogginess)?
IT law suggests that the forum host is not the publisher of or liable for defamatory remarks, but a certain amount of discernment goes a long way in maintaining credibility. Does any forum want to be associated with what are essentially the dregs of InternetLand? Dialogue isn’t automatically generated, it is fostered.
Again, the Unfettered Comment Lashout phenomenon is present in online spaces of other mainstream publications including, for example, the Houston Chronicle and CBSNews.com, but to a lesser degree. Furthermore, MSNBC.com stands accused of worse acts of sloppy journalism like plucking comments out of online forums and placing them in their own articles, with no context, to fulfill a particular angle.
Automated posts do not in any way take the dialogue to the citizenry because there is no connection between the author and commenter and, within the realm of the comments section, sounding off or blowing off steam is not real discussion. Newspapers and magazines should refrain from pseudo-blogging unless there exists a person, and not just a Spamalizer or Offensive Phrase Ejector, behind the electronic curtain dedicated to controlling the levers. In the absence of such care, this is not the way to compete with the changing face of media and reporting.