In the early days of newspaper comment features I was a big fan of open systems that allowed anyone to comment and to comment anonymously. I believed at the time, and still believe, that running an open system is the best way to jump-start discussion and build an online community. But I also believe that newspapers must exercise control.
Exercising control means having an employee read the comments and filter as necessary for such things as obscenity and threats of violence.
Further, I think the time has come to offer different levels of service based on different levels of anonymity. For example, offer a continuum with these poles: total anonymity would come with length and posting restrictions and total openness would come with no restrictions and perhaps even some cool perks.
Story Lab today runs a nice bit of meta-reporting about comment blowback: What if open comment features scare away sources? Here’s the conclusion:
I’m not here to say whether the comment board is a good thing or a bad thing, or what The Post should do about them. That’s the ombudsman’s domain. But like any reporter, I try to protect my sources from any outfall that might result from agreeing to go on the record, even though that’s not always possible. These days, opening up to a reporter sometimes means getting beat up on the web site’s comment boards. Will sources become more reluctant to talk to reporters because they fear what the posters will say about them?
I wrote Sutherland another email asking him about the comments and how they affected him. Did he think we should get rid of them, or better police them?
I didn’t hear back.
It’s time to change the rules of the game. It’s time for newspapers to engage in live moderation. It’s time to offer differing levels of service based upon differing levels of anonymity.