Dec 6, 2010

LANG likes Facebook, readers not so sure (updated)

Back in October, San Bernardino Sun editor Frank Pine sent around a memo saying the nine papers that make up the Los Angeles Newspaper Group chain would be dropping their Topix commenting system for one that interfaces with Facebook accounts. One of the primary reasons for the change was to chase off trolls, who, shielded by anonymity, often veered in racist invective and personal attack - even when stories had nothing to do with race or a particular person.

The new system requires readers to be logged into Facebook and comments are by default linked to the person's page. This transparency (Facebook's privacy critics might laugh at the word) is supposed to create an environment where comments follow a socially correct etiquette, the argument goes.

The changeover happened on Friday, Dec. 3, with all nine papers publishing an online story describing the system and soliciting feedback. So far, most of the responses have been negative, with readers decrying the loss of anonymity, which they say allows for more honest viewpoints, and criticizing the papers for putting "civility" ahead of free and open debate.

A few readers warned that trolls would simply create fake Facebook accounts and return with the same aggressive madness. Some readers worried about their own privacy, saying they didn't like that comments were automatically posted to their Facebook pages. A few readers said they liked the new system and hoped it would make for more civil discussions.

Change always comes hard in the daily newspaper world. Take away a comic strip and you're likely to swamp every department with cranky phone calls - the kind of reaction news editors would love to come in response to, say, actual news. Still, there are interesting questions surrounding anonymous posts and the question of when an opinion become unacceptable as well as the thought of newspapers aligning themselves with Facebook's private profit machine to promote a kind of civility.

Below, I've rounded up a few of the comments that came in over the weekend.

From an unhappy reader in the Whittier Daily News:
I feel the lack of anonymity restricts the truth, people are more inclined to say what they think when they're not being monitored by a moderator. Sure most of the remarks were rude and bigoted, but some stated hardcore facts and relevance to the post.
A dubious Pasadena Star-News reader:
The anonymous comments were the best part of this paper. 

Compared to the Glendale News Press which requires comments to be approved, Star News had a lively conversation.
1. Why do conversations about the news need to be "civil?"

2. Thanks for defining civility for us all.

Good luck with this.
 An aggressive rejection in the LA Daily News:
I will never participate in your comments again. "Civil" means repression in this context and I will stop reading your FUCKING SWILL. 
 The San Bernardino Sun had a few positive comments, like this one:
I think the new Facebook-based comment feature for The Sun, Daily Facts, and Daily Bulletin is great. The public comment feature on too many online news outlets have been overrun by immature, offensive, and asinine comments from users protected by anonymity.
One Inland Valley Daily Bulletin reader sees a conspiracy:
The Daily Bulletin sold out! This is just a move to protect corrupt politicians and their Shady developer Godfathers. Nothing is worse than when they steal from the tax payers, name libraries after themselves and then have to hear the negative comments of the victimized public. Although alot of mud slinging whent on in the old style of posting, at least it was an open public forum that people could use to express their true sentiments and beliefes , good or bad. This new method of traceable commenting and a lack of true public input will only mean that the cancer of corruption will choke up the wheels of justice and crush the common citizen. Good luck to us all.


Anonymous said...

Another brilliant decision for the free press. let's block a free discussion. Does that mean that they will now identify all of their sources in their articles? Seems to be only fair to treat them like online comments.

Get a thicker skin folks...the good news here is that this group of newspapers is becoming rapidly less and less necessary for their subscribers and shrinking reader base.

John Clifford said...

See Meg's well thought-out comments on M-M-M-My Pomona.

Anonymous said...

It would be great if news websites could allow unrestricted and anonymous comments on their sites, but they simply can't. Too many readers are racist, vile and disgusting. It's irresponsible and just plain wrong for the newspapers to aid and abet this sort of conduct.

I guarantee that for every awful comment you or I have read on there, countless hours have been spent by staff behind the scenes filtering and deleting hundreds more.

Restricting comments soley to Facebook readers is probably clamping down too hard, but I understand why they did it. Hopefully they can find a way to expand the commenting system so that more people can participate, but so the content doesn't veer so frequently into unacceptable realms.

At least this is a step toward civility.

John Clifford said...

In my mind that's called "having an editor." Just as newspapers have always printed letters, comments are part of the newspaper('s web presence). Letters sections are always edited, with editors making sure that content is appropriate. They just need to hire a few editors to ensure that discussion doesn't get out of hand. But that costs money and who wants to take responsibility if it has a cost involved?

Anonymous said...

John you hit the nail on the head. Now If they could just get the paywall up !

Anonymous said...

Facebook, just like many other social networks, is blocked In many work places. I see less discussions happening on these sites from now on.

Anonymous said...

I was unaware Pine had a degree on online communicatios. You go Frank.

Bub said...

>>They just need to hire a few editors to ensure that discussion doesn't get out of hand. But that costs money and who wants to take responsibility if it has a cost involved? — John Clifford

Mr. Clifford, with the tight budgets newsrooms _have_ to run these days, hiring editors to moderate the waist-deep filth in anonymous commenting is just plain unwise.

I would much rather the company hire more newsroom and online editors to _produce_ news rather than to police people reacting to the news and each other.

People can send letters to the editors to express opinions and views — it's a time honored tradition.

Or, if they want to have discussions with others about the news they are free to set up their own forums, blogs and Facebook pages with M-M-M-My Pomona being an excellent example.

— signed, Chris Moran (just your average hourly web producer.)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous@1:45 PM:
No one in his right mind would PAY for the lousy content on LANG newspapers

Anonymous said...

Chris Moran speaks the truth. It's hard to justify hiring people to police the comments when the newsrooms lack the manpower to actually put out the news.

Besides, policing the comments would be overwhelming. There are just too many and they come in 24/7 on such a wide range of stories.

Chris Moran said...

>Chris Moran speaks the truth.

Dear 4:56,

Could you tell my wife this, too?


John Clifford said...

Very good points. However, IS IT incumbent on a news organization to facilitate unfettered commenting? If so, I still suggest that they should use journalistic criteria for moderating such commenting. Otherwise, perhaps news organizations should just report and then leave it to other sources to facilitate the commenting.

Just saying . . .

Anonymous said...

yes there are jerks out their with comments and thoughts uncivil. so what. they serve to educate. if you have an online site and people know what they may see they can make the decision to go or no go. if the site is solid and attracts a wide range of opinions it will work.

some editing, like this site may be necessary, but, it should be small.

Anonymous said...

You guys remember that image of three monkeys - one shielding his eyes, one his ears and one his mouth - This is just what LANG looks like.

Anonymous said...

That is an insult to the monkeys!

Chris Moran said...

>>However, IS IT incumbent on a news organization to facilitate unfettered commenting?


Letters to the Editor is not unfettered. Facebook comments are almost unfettered — but news organizations have no responsibility whatsoever to offer "unfettered commenting." That's what blogs and forums are for.

>>Otherwise, perhaps news organizations should just report and then leave it to other sources to facilitate the commenting.

You made my point. We, producing the news, want to focus on news and not policing "unfettered commenting." So we are using the Facebook platform to take over the function of offering readers the opportunity to comment online ... with appropriate accountability.

Anonymous said...

"hiring editors to moderate the waist-deep filth in anonymous commenting is just plain unwise"

actually that would be financially prudent, I'd bet. An article with 50 anonymous comments gets 25 times more views than an article with two Facebook comments, and an audience that's free to comment is an audience that stays activated by the content and keeps coming back for more. Is the argument is that it's too expensive to pay for one editor to moderate what represents thousands and thousands of eyeballs?