Washington Post: Pros & Cons of Closing a Blog\’s Comments

(NOTE: I cross-posted this from Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits blog.)

Yesterday, at 4:15 ET, the editors of WashingtonPost.com indefinitely shut down comments on one of the paper’s weblogs, post.blog. Jim Brady, executive editor of WashingtonPost.com explained that this was due to profanity and hate speech evident in the torrent of contentious comments about the Jan. 15 column by ombudsman Denise Howell concerning the paper’s coverage of the Jack Abramoff story.

I can completely understand this decision, although I’m not sure whether it was the right move…

On the one hand, the Post is a high-profile established news organizations which needs to maintain its reputation for propriety. Also, selectively identifying and removing truly profane or offensive comments in the midst of a deluge is not only labor-intensive, but also a losing battle. You just can’t keep up. In addition, flame wars tend to beget flame wars – if you allow one to go unchecked, people start to think it’s acceptable conduct for that venue (despite policy statements, admonitions from moderators etc.)

But on the other hand: Closing off comments to a blog where discourse had been the norm is harsh and chilling. I think it can irreparably damage relationships cultivated with a participatory audience. It moves the blog further from the realm of conversational media, back toward the traditional “I speak, you listen” publishing model. As this indicates, it can also spawn wider dissemination of negativity. So this move can appear like a great step backwards, even if it offers some immediate relief.

Finally, flame wars are inevitable in any type of conversational media – and they always burn themselves out, usually pretty quickly. They’re something you have to learn to roll with and cope with, not panic over.

Perhaps a less draconian approach might have been to close comments on the relevant postings only, and to moderate comments to the blog for a time until things settled down. Let the conversation move on.

I hope this move turns out to be temporary. We’ll see.

4 thoughts on Washington Post: Pros & Cons of Closing a Blog\’s Comments

  1. Editor and Publisher has quite a few letters from readers of the Washington Post blog at issue (http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001882365) arguing that profanity was rare in the censored comments, and that the Post seemed more concerned about some aggressively critical comments about the Post’s ombudsman. E&P also has a link to the comment thread that was pulled from the Post’s site, which makes for interesting reading.

  2. Hi,

    This is not to be offensive or anything, but there is an assumption in what you write that because the post is high profile, that they are _good_! From my experience they are not the same thing!

    It is not just the post, but a lot of mainstream have a tendancy not to always consider what is best for their readers, as they are also driven by a another set of customers: their advertisers.

    But, to be far, blogging in areas of politics is always difficult, due to the incredible amount of hate and flame. It is almost depressing…

  3. The ombud’s name is Deborah Howell. I’ve been following this closely and Jim Brady is hiding behind an excuse. I would say the comments were 99% profanity-free. There were many comments critical of Howell because she insisted on standing behind a premise that was factually false. Howell wrote in a column published Sunday that disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff “had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties.” That is incorrect. Readers became progressively agitated because Howell refused to concede she was wrong in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the fact that the Post insisted it wanted dialogue but refused to engage the readers in one.

    I have been very disappointed by Howell’s performance as ombudsman. I wrote her a couple of months ago about a front-page story that contained several inaccuracies and did not receive the courtesy of a reply. This seemed to foreshadow her new policy, which she announced earlier this week: “From now on, I don’t reply.”

  4. say the comments were 99% profanity-free. There were many comments critical of Howell because she insisted on standing behind a premise that was factually false.

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