Let’s stop pretending the Sun-Times is the only news site with a comments problem

On Saturday, the Chicago Sun-Times announced it would temporarily suspend the hosting of comments on its sites. Managing Editor Craig Newman offered some additional comments about the decision to Digiday.

There’s been plenty of commentary about the lack of commentary. Locally, Robert Feder framed the Sun-Times as taking “two steps back for every step forward” and Chicagoist printed opposing views from two HuffPo bloggers. Poynter used it as a peg to discuss previous efforts to change comments sections. Many, many people weighed in on Twitter and Facebook. Several claimed the Sun-Times was quashing discussion of the news without sensing the inherent irony in their ability to use a digital tool to discuss the news about a removal of a digital news discussion tool.

(Ironically, this announcement came on the same day as this Sun-Times column from Jenny McCarthy in which she sought to re-cast herself not as an anti-vaccine advocate but as someone who is pro….something. The color gray? Sadly, this temporary shutdown of comments did not include comments from Jenny McCarthy.)

My theory is people who bemoan a lack of comment sections are Web 1.0 folks who remember when comments were discussions, not digital cross-burnings. Those same folks now use Twitter/Facebook for that discussion and haven’t spent time in daily news site comment sections in a while. If you’re going to build a place for a community, you ought to have the right services, processes and tools in place to serve it. But news site comments sections are there more because of inertia than anything else.

I’m all for not letting discussion be determined by gatekeepers but if you have access to a comments section, you have access to a blog or social media. So there’s no real argument to be made that a lack of a comments section silences either dissent or other voices. Especially when amplification is much easier in an open public space. If the point of comments section is to let a publisher know reader opinion, there are still many ways to do that. The Sun-Times hasn’t shut down its Twitter or Facebook presences. It still accepts mail via the Web and the Postal Service. Comments started as a place to tease out aspects of the story not covered. That conversation has moved elsewhere, mostly into other electronic mediums that are as public, if not moreso, as comments have been. In fact, the Sun-Times often features FaceBook/Twitter commentary about news stories on its blogs. It’s a much better way to offer commentary on the news than unchecked comments. (The Digiday story above notes some of the better news sites like Quartz, Vox and The Dish don’t have comments at all.)

In the early days of the Web, daily news site comments were self-policing and governed by online identities people invested in. They no longer are. They’re either anonymous or hidden in plain sight behind a volume of commentary that not even web editors can keep up with without crowdsourced assistance. While some sites still offer comments sections worth reading – usually those that speak to a niche audience – most quickly devolve into hate-filled screeds, at worst, or a parade of stereotypes, at best.

Yesterday, I linked to a comments discussion on Chicago Tribune attached to a story about this weekend’s religiously motivated shootings in Kansas City. A single comment contained a mix of racism, homophobia and suggestions of rape. Within the hour, the entire comments section was gone. It’s worth noting that comment came from someone using his Facebook profile. Meaning he’s not anonymous. Facebook-driven comments sections often bring a more civil discourse, but not always. The screengrab above from this story (warning: autoplay ad) at USA Today is at least on-topic but I’m not sure what would be lost if it didn’t exist.

Though they don’t discuss it much, the Tribune seems to block comments on breaking news stories, particularly those that involve violence or persons of color, a tacit acknowledgement that those types of stories seem to attract racist and violent comments. Perhaps the Sun-Times doesn’t have the technical or human capacity to take similar actions as the Tribune but there’s little motivation for them to do so. There’s not much audience engagement happening in most comments now (while some writers/editors might read comments they rarely engage) and nobody wants to be in the business of monetizing racism.

So let’s stop pretending we’re losing some kind of Algonquin Round Table when news sites do away with a freeform comments section. There will be a certain boutique segment of media commentators that clutches its collective pearls over this decision but it’s a better experience for readers and editors alike until a better system is in place.

Now if only we could do something about auto-play ads…

UPDATE: I had a spirited discussion with GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram about this topic. He Storified it here and wrote a post about it here.

UPDATE 2: I was on WGN Radio 720 with host James VanOsdol to discuss the above and other social media news of the week. Listen here.

5 comments for “Let’s stop pretending the Sun-Times is the only news site with a comments problem

  1. Bob
    April 15, 2014 at 8:50 am

    Interesting piece Scott. I wrote about comment sections last year:

    http://sassone.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/if-were-going-to-have-comment-sections-heres-how-to-do-it/

  2. Clint Calhoun
    April 15, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    I am ashamed that newspapers, one the center of standards, operate comment sections that allow the racists that we like to pretend don’t exist to post hate speech and for readers to basically argue with one and another.

  3. Kat
    April 15, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    Only allowing comments in one form or another is always going to limit our understanding of news and of the world. There must be some sort of gatekeeper, just as if we send a comment via email or mail it does not mean it will be seen. Comment sections on the web should not be a free-for-all. But we also shouldn’t demand that people include their Twitter or Facebook identities. It’s a scary world and I have limited my commenting newspaper comment sections on the Internet because of the lack of anonymity. I’ve had some people attack me personally and threaten personally when I’ve made a fairly ambiguous response to a news story. I don’t want people to know who I am, for the most part. We’ve lost a great deal of respect for one another to be able to share differing opinions and yet respect the person. Just because people seem to be commenting the most on Facebook or twitter, doesn’t mean we aren’t cutting out an important part of our society. By forcing people to use those means for commenting. The harder we make it for people to comment, the less people, and the more we will lose. I used to enjoy commenting on one popular news website, but then they demanded a Facebook login. That’s not an option for me. So now I don’t visit their website and I don’t comment. When we narrow any scope of responses or participants, we lose. Monitor, yes. Close the door, no.

  4. April 16, 2014 at 1:32 am

    Good piece, Scott. But the open-cesspool nature of news comment boards has never troubled me, nor made me want for pearls to clutch. They’re instead a reminder that our society is thick with, you know, morons — something we neglect (or pretend not to notice) at our peril. http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=KHJbSvidohg

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