What's in a newspaper?
The Pasadena Weekly asks whether newspapers have a responsibility to filter out hateful reader comments posted on their Web sites. The Weekly uses the Los Angeles Daily News and Pasadena Star-News (the Weekly's chief competitors) as examples.
The story isn't particularly insightful, but it does raise two issues newspapers should seriously consider as they turn to reader comments as a way to build brand loyalty. The first issue has to do with staffing. Recent cuts have left newsrooms stocked with many fewer reporters at a time when they're being asked to take on increased responsibilities: write and manage blogs, shoot photos and video for the Web, ratchet up byline counts and, now it seems, scrub the comments section of objectively objectionable stuff.
The second issue goes to the very foundation of what a newspaper is, and what it will become: To what extent should the newsroom be responsible for creating and monitoring open forums offer debate? Frank Pine, editor of the Star-News and its sister papers in the San Gabriel Valley, gets at part of this:
“There’s a larger issue in this story,” said Pine, “that is, to what degree should newspaper Web sites allow people to comment anonymously. It’s something that warrants further scrutiny. Certainly it’s a conversation we’ve been having in the newsroom and will continue to have.”
The issue of anonymous comments is certainly worth considering, but an even larger issue, I think, is whether the newsroom should be monitoring comments section in the first place.
Traditionally, the role of the newsroom was to ingest information from a variety of sources and then exercise responsible judgment about what to publish, with what context, and with what emphasis. In other words, the newsroom acts as a filter. Creating a platform for free and open debate is a whole other animal, one newsrooms are not set up to handle.
More importantly, we have to ask whether newspapers adding comments in a benevolent effort to foment civic discussion, or in a calculated effort to build a customer base?