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Sept. 27, 2013, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: Redeeming comment sections, and Bezos hints at his Post plans

Plus: Horse_ebooks’ denouement, Twitter’s IPO, and the rest of this week’s journalism and tech news.

Can user comments be saved?: Several media companies announced some radically diverging approaches to handling user comments, prompting renewed debate in the ongoing discussion over what to do with reader comments. Google’s YouTube, long known for some of the worst comments on the web, announced that it would tie comments to Google+. As Frederic Lardinois of TechCrunch noted, in addition to tying more comments to real names, the new system will allow ranking and nesting comments, as well as private commenting with those in users’ Google+ circles.

Casey Newton of The Verge added some context to the move, writing that video creators have been pushing for YouTube to fix its comments for years, but the problem was too difficult to tackle without the infrastructure of Google+ in place. ReadWrite’s Selena Larson pointed out that there’s another motive at work here, too: It’s also “a thinly veiled attempt by Google to bring Google+ services to the mainstream.”

Gawker, meanwhile, unveiled updates to its Kinja commenting platform that expand users’ control over comments even more broadly — letting them rearrange, filter, and prioritize comments. Gawker head Nick Denton explained why he believes comments can and should be redeemed, an idea enthusiastically endorsed by GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram.

The commenting move that attracted the most attention, though was Popular Science’s decision to shut down its comments based in part on research that has shown that uncivil comments can polarize readers’ views of the articles to which they are attached. Because of this, the magazine’s Suzanne LaBarre said, “the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories.”

Several writers pushed back against Popular Science’s case, including Slate’s Will Oremus, who argued that the magazine’s editors “seem to think of themselves as heralds trumpeting unimpeachable pronouncements from the castle tower to a crowd of subjects somewhere below,” and Ingram, who advocated fixing comments rather than destroying them. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson and journalism professor Kathy Gill took the middle ground, with Gill concluding, “I don’t trust ‘technological’ solutions when the problems rest with human behavior.” CNET’s Karyne Levy wrote about what it’s like to be the victim of comment-section trolls on a regular basis.

Elsewhere, The New York Times Magazine’s Michael Erard took a big-picture view of the evolution of online comments and offered four suggestions for improving the culture of comments, including allowing user-driven moderating and rewarding connoisseurship. Hazlitt’s Navneet Alang echoed Erard in defending comment sections, and at The Awl, Ruth Graham examined the people who still write in the original comment sections, letters to the editor.


Bezos’ hints for the Post: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos went on the interview circuit this week, talking to NBC, ABC, CNN, and The Verge about his plans for Amazon as well as his newly purchased Washington Post. Regarding the Post, a handful of comments grabbed most of the attention as they gave a bit of a clue about what his ownership of the paper will look like.

He told NBC that “printed newspapers on actual paper may be a luxury item,” comparing them to using horses for leisure rather than commuting, as they’ve been used in the past. PaidContent’s Mathew Ingram generally agreed with the analogy, though he said the changes in contemporary media are actually more like going back to the pre-mass media past.

He told The Verge he won’t buy any other papers, and told CNN he plans to “help from a distance.” He also made some comments to ABC about applying Amazon’s customer-centered mantra to the Post and about throwing parties for yourself — comments that Ad Age’s Simon Dumenco said would have Post staffers reading the tea leaves about Bezos’ challenge to old-school publishing.

Reading roundup: It was a pretty slow week on the news-about-news front, but there were a number of ongoing stories worth paying attention to:

— Exhibit A filed under “slow week”: The beloved apparent Twitter spam bot @Horse_ebooks was revealed this week (by The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean!) to be an elaborate bit of performance art run by two viral marketers at BuzzFeed and Howcast, culminating in an exhibition at a New York art gallery. The two bought the account and apparently manually ran it to look like a (rather randomly poetic) bot. We’re still trying to figure out if this has any broader meaning whatsoever: Lots of people on Twitter were upset, Knight-Mozilla OpenNews’s Dan Sinker (no stranger to Twitter art projects) wrote a thoughtful post about art emerging out of randomness, and Slate’s Will Oremus said even though it was “fake,” it was still brilliant.

— Details about Twitter’s coming IPO are trickling out: The Street reported that Twitter expects to sell about $1.5 billion of stock for a total valuation of about $15 billion to $16 billion, and All Things D’s Kara Swisher had more details about Twitter’s IPO strategy. Twitter also announced yet another TV-related partnership, this time with CBS and involving Twitter’s video program, Amplify. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram wondered whether Twitter’s tying its fortunes to TV is the best course, and The Wall Street Journal’s Farhad Manjoo lamented that the IPO will make Twitter more generic and less addictive.

— We’re continuing to see commentary on the proposed U.S. federal media shield law. The Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton called attention to the journalists opposing of the bill, while Slate’s Emily Bazelon said that despite its flaws, the bill is better than no shield law at all. Northeastern’s Dan Kennedy, meanwhile, dug up some commentary he wrote questioning the value of a shield law almost three decades ago.

— The image-based social network Pinterest made a move to appeal to publishers with its introduction of new article pins, which will allow more detailed information about articles pinned to the site, including headline, author, and story description. As ReadWrite’s Lauren Orsini noted, the change was partly a response to the way its users were utilizing the site as a bookmarking service for articles.

— Finally, two interesting reads on the practical side of online journalism: Media consultant Alan Mutter’s analysis of digital news subscription plans, concluding that “digital audiences aren’t nearly as enthusiastic about paying for news as publishers are about charging for it,” and a wonderful reading list for numerous aspects of the craft of online journalism by professor Paul Bradshaw.

Imaginary Post logo by outtacontext used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 27, 2013, 10 a.m.
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