One week ago, Buffalo News
Editor Margaret Sullivan announced that The News would be "seeking a return to civility in online comments" by forcing commenters
to provide their real names. Anyone who has been paying a modicum of attention to The News
' website knows that the comments there were never civil and, therefore, this "return to civility" strangely references something that never existed. Of course, reasonable people can disagree as to whether websites should allow anonymous commenting. We had the debate on Buffalo Rising
a few months ago. Some people think it's critical to fostering candid, free-flowing discourse. Others think it enables worthless trash talk
unworthy of publication.
Leaving aside that increasingly tired debate, the News'
decision is remarkable on a number of levels. First, BuffaloNews.com
only started to allow online comments about a year ago. So our hometown paper's delay in allowing comments is rivaled only by their haste in giving up on them.
Second, The News is resorting to this drastic move because of the quality of comments on their site. For whatever reason, commenters on BuffaloNews.com were the worst of the worst. On any given day, you would find volumes of racist, bigoted, hateful text that you'd rarely find on other smaller WNY media sites. Why is that? Well, it's hard to say but one reason why this kind of terrible nonsense thrived on BuffaloNews.com is because The News put little to no effort into moderating comments. Communities require cultivation. Either The News was unaware of this or didn't want to bother to put the resources into cultivation. Without cultivation, the weeds take over. And they did take over in the comment section of BuffaloNews.com.
Third, The News
is going to attempt to ban anonymous commenting by setting up a system equivalent to tracking letters to the editor - requiring commenters to provide phone numbers and hometowns so staffers at The News
can confirm identities is nothing short of absurd. The News
could have required commenters to log in using 'verified' accounts like Facebook Connect. They could have then displayed the comments provided by 'verified' commenters at the top of the comment stream and shoved anonymous comments to the bottom. Or, they could have put the anonymous comments behind yet another click-through screen. They could have tried all sorts of 21st century solutions, but instead, The News
is going to use the only process they're comfortable with - pen and paper letter to the editor-style verification. It's as if a bunch of people with AOL email addresses
are deciding how The News
will deal with all technological issues.
While it's disappointing that The News
is running away from this issue, it's not at all surprising. The paper has been slow to adapt to the changing media landscape as management continues to hope the world goes back to 1975. They want the internet to go away, but it won't. Other online media
has been quick - and right - to roundly criticize this decision by The News
But we want to know what you think. So have at it in the comments.