Time Out!

Thank you for the comments you post to the Independent every day. We’re going to take a break from publishing them—while we reexamine our role in convening civic debate.

We have shut down the commenting function on our stories for now.

The tone of commenting on the Independent—the remarks readers post at the bottom of stories—seems to have skidded to the nasty edges and run off the rails. We’re responsible for reading, vetting, and posting all comments on the site. We’ve failed in our responsibility to keep the discussion on track.

We started noticing it during last fall’s mayoral campaign. Both sides became apoplectic every time their opponents were simply quoted in a news story. They resorted to personal attacks and relentless fury. Or they spent the day trying to pick fights with each other through the comments section. The tenor bled onto unrelated stories.

For some reason that tone has continued into the new year. We’re not talking a few random grouchy or harsh remarks. Some stories seem to attract streams of almost exclusively ad hominem or just plain mean comments. We try to weed those comments out, or remove the offensive parts. We inevitably miss some. Or we apply our standards inconsistently.

The resulting harsh debate made me wonder: Is this the long-awaited new dawn of democracy and accountability we thought we were helping to help spark in New Haven by launching the Independent in 2005? Or are we contributing to the reflexively cynical, hate-filled discourse that has polluted American civic life? Are we reviving the civic square? Or managing a sewer with toxic streams that demoralize anyone who dares to take part in government or citizen activism?

Instead of sparking people to get involved and consider new ideas and talk to each other across boundaries, the discussion has too often devolved into a yell fest. Or a continual put-down party. It has discouraged people from taking part. And that was after we removed a good chunk of the submitted comments!

We thought we could respond the way we did a few years back when commenting got particularly nasty—by more strictly enforcing our policy. (You can read the policy here.) It is a necessarily subjective process. You can’t automate it. A human being has to review every comment to make the process work right. This time the volume of inappropriate or borderline comments made enforcing the policy an endless cat-and-mouse game lasting from early morning into the late night.

Who can trash somebody else or a community, over and over, and get as much of it as possible into the Independent, day after day? That might sound like a fun sport to a small fraction of our readers. It’s not a sport we have any interest in officiating.

Lately, despite our sincerest efforts, we have let some personal attacks slip through, including some truly mean stuff that has no place in a forum like the Independent. That’s our fault; a break will help us recharge too. We take shifts seven days a week combing through comments before publishing them. We have failed too often lately to weed out ones that shouldn’t appear on the site, and in some cases hurt people deeply. We have fallen down on the job. And we apologize for that, especially to people who have borne the brunt of vicious comments.

The final straw came Monday, which saw a sunrise to late-night stream of offensive remarks submitted. (The night ended with six of seven consecutive comments needing to be zapped in five minutes.) During the day an obscene, misogynist, libelous attack was submitted about a public official. I didn’t even read it all; I could tell it was toxic from the start. I thought I had followed the proper procedure: first banning the user, then deleting the comment.

I went out to an interview. I returned to the office an hour later. To my horror, emails had started coming in to alert us to the horrid comment up on the site. It was immediately zapped. But it was too late. And it wasn’t the first time.

It made me wonder: Has this gotten out of hand? We always took pride in running a civil, diverse, thoughtful, passionate, and fun discussion forum. Especially compared to other news sites’ forums. Now I had second thoughts. About whether we are still up to the job of moderating comments. Or even whether that should still be our job in 2012.

Two weeks earlier, our staff embarked on a 24-hour experiment. From midnight to midnight we raced around the city filing hour-by-hour stories about what people were up to in town. Our readership climbed for the day. The number of comments submitted dropped by almost half. And the comments weren’t mean. We ended the day energized, proud of the site, closely connected to the community. The reporting was a relief; so was the break from the incessant flaming.

The flaming resumed in force the next day.

Meanwhile, readers angered about having portions of their comments excised keep pointing out inconsistencies. They note that we’ve allowed similar comments to be published by other people. They’ve been right.

So we’re calling a time-out. A hiatus in posting readers’ comments. Just so we can all catch our breath and start anew.

Readers’ comments are integral to the Independent. Over the years they have enlivened our stories, taken them to new places, and most importantly brought together people in conversation who would never have shared ideas otherwise. Every day we continue to receive terrific comments from our regular readers, a form of participation that we consider one of the main reasons we launched the Independent. To the majority of readers who comment every day, we say: Thank you! You inspire us. You’re the stars of this site. I’ve always taken pride in how much more thoughtful, diverse, intelligent, and fun our comments section overall has been compared to those on most other news sites. Editors of other sites have borrowed our ideas to improve their comment streams.

And in New Haven, we consider anonymous commenting an important option. At least until there’s free speech in New Haven’s public life. Until everyone who receives a direct or indirect public paycheck feels free to express political opinions or allegiances or air criticisms in public. Until teachers, for example, or people who clean public buildings feel they can express themselves without fear of losing their jobs or other retribution, a fear their bosses regularly and consciously reinforce. Until New Haven can have an honest debate about school reform somewhere other than the Independent.

But without civility, without respect, a free forum turns into a soul-destroying free-for-all. A few people can foul that forum. Lately it’s been far more than a few. And we’ve failed to prevent that from happening.

An Evolving Role

So please bear with us while we take stock. I’ve drawn up three sets of questions and options we can consider as we decide what to do next:

* Should we use new tools to improve how we monitor comments? Enable readers to flag inappropriate comments that pass our filter? Make the link to our commenting policy more visible? Try to raise money for a full-time staffer devoted to monitoring comments? Ramp up our vetting of comments to include blocking generally negative comments, period?

Have comments sections on news sites become obsolete, even a civic hazard, in the era of social media? Most of our readers weren’t on Facebook when we launched the Independent in 2005. There was no Twitter. We saw two main gaps we needed to fill: Intensive high-quality local news reporting and analysis. And a place where New Haveners of all backgrounds and points of view could discuss important news in real time, civilly. That first need remains as pressing as ever. What about the second? The last few years have seen an explosion of social media sites. People have endless places to discuss news. In fact, the more focus we place on news reporting, the more useful links we provide for people on those sites. Those sites are set up to moderate discussion. Meanwhile, we have done an increasingly bad job at moderating comments, despite working hard at it. As a low-budget news site dedicated to the high-quality reporting, maybe we need to focus our resources on what we do best: reporting and writing and illustrating stories.

Should we concentrate on new ways to engage the public in civic discussion? For a little more than a year, we’ve been experimenting with ways to take the lively Independent debates into new arenas, to broaden the discussion and keep it going. We’ve had multimedia, multi-platform public events bringing New Haveners onstage with authors of books on school reform and violence reduction, while other New Haveners chime in online or in person. (Examples here and here.) We teamed up with a TV station to hold coffeehouse “New Haven Talks” sessions following up on hot stories. (Examples here, here and here.) We’ve hosted “house party” live-blogging of political events with real-time reader participation. (Examples here and here.) And we’re developing a “Pundits Dream Team” idea for focused in-depth follow-up discussion of ongoing news stories and issues by knowledgeable people with different points of views.

Whichever road we choose, count on us to emerge from this time-out determined to do it well, hand in hand with you. In a way that makes us all feel good about our community, and about each other.


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