If Paul Bass can no longer handle online comments, has public participation reached the end of the line?
Like many observers, I was stunned last week when I learned that the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit local news site that Bass launched in 2005, had suspended comments. “The tone of commenting on the Independent…seems to have skidded to the nasty edges and run off the rails,” Bass wrote on Feb. 7. “We’re responsible for reading, vetting, and posting all comments on the site. We’ve failed in our responsibility to keep the discussion on track.”
What made Bass’s decision especially disconcerting is that the Independent enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for the way it managed comments, building a genuine community around its journalism. I was an unabashed admirer, and a book I’m writing about the Independent and other local news sites lavishes considerable attention on how Bass got it right.
Bass and his small staff spent many hours each week screening comments to make sure that racist, hateful remarks did not find their way onto the site. That stood in contrast to the local daily paper, the Journal Register Co.’s New Haven Register, whose anything-goes policy was often cited to me by members of the African-American community in explaining why they’d stopped reading the paper.
“He [Bass] just doesn’t allow people to say anything and post anything. And I think that really speaks volumes to his character,” Shafiq Abdussabur, a New Haven police officer and community activist, told me in a 2010 interview. “And in return it speaks volumes to the reputation and character of the newspaper. Because let me tell you, one bad racial comment that you stick in a paper like that, you can lose your whole urban readership.”
Ironically, it is now the Register — part of John Paton’s “Digital First” initiative — that is following the path set by Bass. Last August, the Register brought in a young, progressive editor, Matt DeRienzo, previously known for the Open Newsroom Project he ran as publisher of the Register Citizen of Torrington, Conn. And several months after DeRienzo’s arrival in New Haven, the Register finally began screening comments before they were posted.
It was DeRienzo, too, who wrote perhaps the most heartfelt plea for Bass to restore comments to the Independent. “How can the community be part of your journalism if you don’t even allow them to comment on what you do?” DeRienzo asked on his blog, Connecticut Newsroom.
But if the Independent is no longer accepting comments, the conversation about comments continues. In an entirely predictable development, people are talking on other sites about Bass’ cone of silence — with the Independent’s active encouragement, as the Independent has linked to several blogs and news sites so that its former commenters can join in. Bass himself has posted several responses. As of Tuesday evening, 52 comments about the Independent had been posted to DeRienzo’s blog; 38 to a post written by Ben Berkowitz, a co-founder of the New Haven-based civic-media project SeeClickFix; and 28 to my own blog, Media Nation. Among my commenters: Bass and DeRienzo, as well as a longtime critic of Bass’ and a former New Haven alderman.
Earlier this week, I sent Bass an email asking him whether he had deliberately driven the conversation to other sites to help him figure out his next move. “Yes, following the comments elsewhere both to help inform what we should do — and to respond to people with questions or critiques,” he replied. He estimated that 85 percent of people posting publicly want the Independent’s comments restored, whereas 85 percent of those sending him emails support his decision to shut them down.
“Those of us who wrestled with posting comments and some really abusive and relentless people all day and night are feeling much happier since the comments stopped,” Bass continued. “Our moods have brightened. We are nicer people to be around.”
So should the comments resume? I think they have to — they’re too integral a part of the Independent’s identity. Civic engagement has been on the wane for years, and it’s not enough for journalism merely to serve the public. As I wrote for The Guardian in 2009, news organizations need to recreate the very idea of a public by encouraging a sense of involvement and participation. At least until recently, the Independent did a remarkable job of doing just that. But clearly something changed.
Unlike another news-site publisher whose comments policy I respect, Howard Owens of The Batavian, Bass has always allowed people to post anonymously or pseudonymously. Bass argues that the police officers, teachers, and other city stakeholders who are among his most dedicated commenters would never dare post if they had to reveal their identities. So a real-names policy is out, as is Facebook authentication.
But there are other steps Bass could take to restore civility while maintaining his sanity. Here’s one idea I discussed with him: require users to register under their real names before they comment. Yes, they’d still be allowed to post anonymously, but they’d know Bass knows who they are, which can have a calming effect. Moreover, registration would make it easier to ban abusive commenters, saving Bass and his staff the bother of having to screen posts from known troublemakers.
Some two decades ago, when we started down the online-news road, I think many of us were both idealistic and unrealistic about what the “people formerly known as the audience” (to use Dan Gillmor‘s phrase) could contribute. The answer, I think, is not to walk away from the conversation, but to figure out ways of managing it better.
I thought Bass had struck the right balance. But what worked in 2005, or 2009, may no longer be enough for 2012. That requires a new way forward, not a retreat. I hope Bass doesn’t give up on his community. If he does, I’m afraid it may choose to give up on him.
Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on “Beat the Press,” a weekly media program on WGBH-TV (Channel 2). His blog, Media Nation, is online at www.dankennedy.net.