While reading through the sites in my feed reader yesterday, a headline from Universal Hub caught my eye.
Wait, somebody actually reads the comments at the bottom of Globe and Herald articles?
The master of enticing headlines strikes again. Since I’m one of the, apparently, few people who do read the comments at the end of Globe and Herald articles (some of them are actually informative and sometimes downright hilarious), I had to read the whole article.
In it, Adam Gaffin refers to a piece written by Doug Bailey in the Boston Globe. Gaffin notes that Bailey’s main point, that internet comments are often filled with fluff or inane rants, is correct. Gaffin then goes on to point out, correctly, that the Globe and Herald are to blame for the poor comments at both sites:
But you know what, Doug? Your pals at Morrissey Boulevard and Herald Square share the blame. They haven’t set up forums for intelligent discourse on the events of the day. They’ve set up the digital equivalent of blank sheets of paper taped to the wall above the urinals in men’s rooms. Of course people are just going to scribble and rant.
Real community – and the intelligent discussion that goes with it – takes real work. And real community is a two-way street – people react differently when they know somebody is on the other end of the ether. What do you expect is going to happen when people realize there’s no there there? Compare the rantings on your typical news story with either MetaFilter or, locally, the BoMoms forums (so somebody at the Globe does get it).
Absolutely true. The Globe and Herald simply don’t respond to many of the comments written on their sites. They do moderate the comments, so what you see has been approved by someone at the papers and thus they share the blame for the quality of comments posted there.
I know that comments are moderated because I’ve written comments on both sites, some get published, some don’t, but they all enter a queue for moderation.
Just a few days ago, I spotted that the Globe made an error while reporting on a fire in South Boston. The error was that the Globe reported the fire happening in Dorchester, most likely because it was on 400 Dorchester Avenue (which extends not only into Southie, but also into the downtown core, past South Station).
After tweeting about the Globe’s mistake (which normally I would write off as simple human error but since the Globe’s headquarters are in Dorchester, you’d think they’d know better) I then proceeded to write a comment on the Globe’s site informing them of their mistake.
Within a few minutes, the Globe started changing the information on their article. At first it was just the headline, then a few minutes later the article body, then a few minutes later the meta title was changed too. Nowhere during that time period, nor now, did my comment appear.
Could it have been sheer coincidence that minutes after posting my comment about their mistake they noticed their error and began fixing it? Sure. More likely, in my opinion, is that the Globe didn’t like the one snarky line I put in the comment stating “you should know better, considering you’re based in Dorchester” and decided to just make the changes and hope no one called them out on it.
If you make a mistake online, don’t try to hide it. It wont’ work since people take screen shots and tons of services store caches of your web pages. Instead, admit the mistake, fix it, and notify your readers of the error and the correction.
But not getting credit for my editing fix isn’t what bugs me, it’s the lack of transparency and communication. The ideal method would have been for the Globe to post my comment, respond to it saying they’ve fixed the mistake, then crossed out the original location and replaced it with the correct one. That way there’s transparency, a paper trail, and the commenter gets rewarded and encouraged to continue commenting.
Before my comment:
After my comment:
To anyone thinking I manipulated these images. Here’s a tweet from the Globe on July 11th marking the fire in Dorchester, then a day later another tweet from the Globe marking the the fire in South Boston.
What really gets me going though, is that the Globe was not the first publication to report on the fire. Other publications had reported on the fire with the correct location hours before the Globe ran their version of the story. A simple Google search, followed up by checking Google Maps would have allowed them to catch the mistake and not require me notifying them via a comment.
Quality Community Leads to Quality Comments
The Boston Globe comments don’t fail because web comments are dumb and vain, they fail because the Globe doesn’t understand web comments. They moderate comments, yet a lot of junk gets through, they don’t respond to comments, and they don’t reward their commenters. Those three conditions combined together add up to comment fail for the Globe.
Bailey believes that removing reader comments from newspapers will strengthen their product:
We know that newspapers made a mistake and devalued their product by giving it away for free on the Internet. Some rebuilding could begin by removing these reader forums and restoring journalism’s dignity.
It’s a downright silly suggestion, as comments provide a venue for readers to add to the article, and as in my case fix the mistakes of the newspapers. Bailey goes on to note that journalists “…work hard gathering information dutifully trying to raise the debate on issues or inform the public on a burning topic…”. So, according to Bailey, the whole point of journalism is to inform and inspire discussion, yet because he doesn’t like the discussions that are happening we should shut off the valve.
That’s ridiculous. It’s not the fault of the comment system that the comments aren’t filled with in-depth discourse, it’s the fault of the comment administrators who don’t respond to comments and decide to post some mis-informative ones while ignoring other informative ones. Don’t blame comments Bailey, blame the Globe and Herald.
You can find plenty of intelligent comments on the web, but as Adam Gaffin noted, it requires hard work to build a community and ensure the comments released through that community are quality. Participating in the discussion after the article is published only serves to strengthen the quality of comments. Otherwise you’re left with a mess of one-way rants and shouts from the article and the comments.
Thanks to Nima for the Fail Stamp picture.