No comment? Readers react
By Jean Godden
Crosscut, the popular reader-supported, on-line Northwest news site, has announced that it is eliminating readers' comments as of the end of 2019. The Crosscut no-comment decision was announced Dec. 19 by Anne Christnovich, the site's audience engagement editor. She wrote that comment threads "no longer support our mission to foster communities that participate in civic discourse."
Christnovich said the decision was taken over concern that comment sections were rife with "bigotry, threats of violence and racist attacks." She added that the need to review comments was a heavy responsibility for a three-member audience engagement staff. Furthermore analysis found that of the 17,400 posts received in the past year, 45 percent came from just 13 people.
Crosscut's announcement has drawn several dozen reader comments and the majority of those reactions were not favorable. Words that kept appearing (some from frequent commenters) were that the non-profit site's new policy was "disappointing," "cowardly" and "just plain gutless."
Rich Davis, a commenter who identified himself rather than remaining anonymous, said he was "worried about the staff being insulated from the bulk of Seattle." Commenter RGPence expressed concern the site will be "cut off from conversations" if Crosscut takes a new direction, maybe reverts to a letters-to-the-editor model. Several threatened to read less if restricted from comment.
Some pointed out that the New York Times still accepts comments, although those are confined to subscribers. The Seattle Times also permits responses, although that newspaper has had a no-comment policy on sensitive articles. (Full disclosure: Westside Seattle and the Robinson papers -- where this writer's opinion pieces appear -- also continue to accept comments.)
Among the few respondents sympathetic to Crosscut's new policy was Melissa Westbrook, who has run a website, Seattle Schools Community Forum. She observed that, following the election of President Donald Trump, comments submitted to her blog grew more aggressive and threatening.
No matter how one feels about Trump, few can disagree that the president's crude insults, rampant misogyny and bullying, often expressed in gutter language, have given tacit permission to others to resort to previously unacceptable rhetoric. If your president refers to the respected speaker of the U. S. House as "crazy Nancy" and the former head of the FBI as a "nut job," then some people may decide it's OK to describe people with whom one disagrees as "a**holes."
But getting back to the Crosscut decision to eliminate comments, there remains a question over what, if anything, the news site will do to establish reader contact. In her explanatory article, Christnovich stated that Crosscut will come up with innovative new ways to engage the reader, with details (maybe a letters-to-the-editor feature) to be announced mid-January.
We should all look forward to finding out what the new direction might be. Chirstnovich holds out the promise that the new plan will "make diverse opinions more visible." She spoke out for transparency and openness. Westbrook backed that view saying that, in her estimation, "letters to the editor could be just as good."
As a one-time letters-to-the-editor editor (years ago at the P-I), I can confirm that, if precautions are taken to ensure letter-to-the-editor writers are who they say they are, the task will be labor intensive. What's also challenging is trying for diversity among letter writers. While the Puget Sound region is a multi-ethnic community, those who have disposable time and resources to volunteer their opinions may be less than representative of the community.
We can all wish Crosscut well in fostering additional ways to engage community members and encourage dialogue about issues. But if Crosscut's innovative new solutions prove counterproductive (as some believe), it's possible there can and should be a return to a moderated, non-toxic comment policy. In other words: Tell us what you really think.
Should Crosscut keep comments? Why not? You can stop a few people dominating a forum by limiting the number of posts someone can make. That's just a matter of programming, querying a database.
Yes, some clowns will sign in under different accounts. This happened to me in a column I wrote critical of Sound Transit a few years ago for a PI blog. An ST employee tried passing himself off as several commenters. That's pretty easy to see through.
The greatest challenge for online and print news media in our region isn't comments, but having more "there" there. By opening publications to more writers, publishers have more opportunity to increase readership. If it's just the same voices with predictable points of view, parts of the audience will get bored and leave, making it more likely for trolls to affect publishing.
So, these two bits. Keep comments, limit the number of posts per week/month. And, renew publications with fresh perspective.
Just to add onto my comment on Crosscut’s new policy, it is very difficult to moderate an open forum today.
I did have guidelines at my blog, Seattle Schools Community Forum, but something tried to push the limits. What is name-calling? Is a veiled threat, a threat?
I had one reader say, about a recent candidate for the Seattle School Board, that the candidate “must be stopped.” I, and other readers, took that to mean the reader wanted to actively work against the candidate’s election. The candidate who revealed she is Jewish, felt it was a veiled threat to her safety.
It’s not always a clear or easy call.
I’ll also note that one hard rule was no name-calling of children. Some still did it.
And then one reader -in a Trumpian move - repeatedly attacked my late husband.
I didn’t stop writing the blog because of the comments but I sure don’t miss that part of the job.
I assume that Crosscut's "no comment" policy is a business decision. A bad decision in my opinion, especially because its stories encourage comment. The "comments" are often the best part of the story. Ignore the idiots and read the good ones. But hey, fewer clicks and less readership would be my guess.
Not surprised seeing as how Washington has become a new leftist
liberal state and cities like Seattle and Tacoma don't want the rest of the USA to know they are as big or bigger mess than L.A. with needles and feces and bums all over the streets. Can't have plastic straws, but it's OK to defecate on the sidewalk. The world has gone crazy.