Eric Zorn, playing off a line by columnist Leonard Pitts today in his Chicago Tribune blog, expressed something that has circled around our discussions of how to handle story comments* on kitsapsun.com.
Pitts, who I respect a great deal and really enjoy reading, says anonymity is the scourge of newspaper message boards. He’s not wrong. That’s the Internet in 2010 for ya, and anyone tuned into our own comment threads knows how quickly a topic can be led off the rails (and much more quickly when a bikini barista is involved). Zorn, in part agreeing with Pitts, also says anonymity and pseudonimity aren’t a bad thing “if they’re overseen by a relatively vigilant proprietor.”
That’s more or less where we’ve settled, at least for the time being, regarding Kitsapsun.com comment threads. The genie is out of the bottle as far as building a system that verifies every identity of a Web site user, and I’m not convinced that level of security is what we want to be asking for either. As journalists have know for years, there can be value in anonymity.
What we are striving to do as a staff is become part of the conversation, whether by moderating the comments on our blogs to filter out those without merit, or by simply joining the comments to answer questions and lend credibility to the dialouge.
Interestingly, on the same day I read Zorn’s column I was on a conference call for editors from the newspapers in our company, Scripps. One slide compared the number of staff comments posted on stories to the number of comments removed, to see whether there is a correlation (i.e. if more staff participates does it lower the number of comments that need to be removed?). In the months of January and February, the Kitsap Sun had far and away the greatest ratio of staff postings to staff removals among Scripps papers, and three times as many staff comments posted than most. And we’re among the smallest third of the 14-newspaper Scripps family. So the numbers, while not conclusive of any effect our joining the conversation may have, do show that our staff is out in front about being engaged with our readers. Which I think will pay dividends in the years to come.
But back to the Zorn column. One last thought, on this statement: “The compromise solution seems to me to be allowing people to comment and discuss issues using a consistent identity of some sort.”
That stuck with me given the, let’s say, robust discussion of the Sun’s political leanings and other failings that followed my last post. Although several of you regularly use your full names, like Mick, Colleen, Sharon and Roger, others prefer a pseudonym. I don’t think there’s a problem with that as long as the pseudonym follows, as Zorn wrote, a “consistent identity.” I don’t agree with all of the challenges you leveled, but those with a consistent identity have credibility to me, and thus are deserving of a response to the extent time allows, and in those comments I rarely see the rants that Pitts worries about. (Though I do see those sentiments in our story comments section far too often for comfort.)
I suppose what I’m saying is that, even after the heaping spoon of criticism I felt left with after that last post, I do appreciate the integrity and tact most of you show in the online back-and-forth. Let’s keep it up.
*Comments are different than “blogs.” It’s a pet peeve of mine, yes, but if you want my attention don’t call the section after a story, where you leave comments, “the blogs.” I hear it once a day, and sigh. But enough of that rant.