April 27, 2009

NY Times Declares Comment King Through Clenched Teeth

by tolles at 1:33 PM

Virginia Heffernan's article Comment is King in yesterday's Sunday NY Times magazine was an insightful piece around the role of commentary on news sites like the Washington Post, Salte and others -- although perhaps more insightful than she intended..

For what Ms. Heffernan really shines light on is the way that journalists at publications see comments, commentary and commenters.

"Most journalists hate to read it, because it’s stinging and distracting, and readers rarely plow through long comments sections unless they intend to post something themselves."

I'll skip the knock about unsubstatiated generalizations, since I think she's right -- print and old school journalists do hate commentary. And I will give a shout out to MS. Hefferman here for what opened that paragraph:

"Someone should be paying more attention, especially since online newspaper commenters as a whole seem to have (at least) the stamina, drive and spare time to become a cogent part of online journalism."

Well, they are. Michael Arrington of Techcrunch regularly responds in the comments of his news site. And if you were following what the AP was up to, the comments were where it was at for that story, with Jim Kennedy and Arrington mixing it up. And, here at Topix, we're powering through the lack of local reporting by enabling the people to power that news themselves through commentary in over 20,000 cities and towns.

What she's missing here, and what informs the relationship here around journalists and commentary is that commentary makes the story secondary. In commentary, the original article becomes the seed of a conversation or discussion. And, the commentary is not merely some sort of add on to the article, but the main point of the exercise.

The Internet is not, at the end of the day, a distribution vehicle for your content. The Internet is a place for people to interact and participate with your content, add to it, and make something new. The people transform what they get to touch.

The article describes some of the more common behaviors in online commnetary -- the back and forth between commenters, and the observations that most commentary is written for the commenter themselves. If the article had enabled commentary, I would have perhaps pointed out that the Internet does not have "signature 'fact-checking'", or rather, it's called fisking

Perhaps more telling is her point that the fact checking "rarely potent enough to compel corrections by The Post". Maybe it's because the comments are petty and banal. Or maybe the Post (and other publications) aren't really involved or paying attention. Or both.

. And maybe nothing can — or even should — be done to curb entirely the brute urge of readers to defy what they’ve read.

Despite Ms. Heffernan's clear bias here, she gets a lot of it right, and if you care about the future of what news looks like, and why journalists and journalism will fight that future into bankruptcy, this is a great piece.