Sunday column: If you can’t play nice …

The Internet’s been quieter the past few weeks in Sanford, and that silence is both welcome and unfortunate.
Two weeks ago Monday, we suspended the “comments” feature at sanfordherald.com because of the onslaught of the personal attacks and outright idiocracy (I’ll get to more on that later) that ensued in the weeks and months after we redesigned and upgraded our Web site. The suspension is expected to last until Feb. 1 tentatively, because by then we hope to have a system in place that will require valid e-mail addresses and require logins before a comment is posted.
Of course, that won’t be the cure-all to “comment abuse,” but it’s a start. The last thing we want to do, however, is get rid of them all together.
It’s a Catch 22 if there ever was one. On one hand, we want readers to flood our Web site with visits, clicks and comments to both attract advertisers and generate interest in our product. Without a Web site that not only allows reader thoughts but encourages it, we’re not inviting the “younger” crowd to get involved in what we do.
On the other hand, we’re creating an online forum that’s for the most part unsupervised (we don’t have the staff numbers to perch atop the online throne and monitor every word we get) and unflattering to our community.
Cases in point:
Headline: Hospital delivers decades first baby.
Comment: Racist jab about welfare (the family was black)
Headline: Local woman on NBC’s “Biggest Loser”
Comment: *Insert plethora of “fat jokes”*
Stories on local arrests usually attracted comments about the suspect and their families. Political stories were perhaps the worst, as the comments would get as “no holds barred” as ever.
The things people were writing were things we would be sued a million times over for had we printed them in our newspaper. And because our Web providers comment system allowed for anonymous comments (as many other newspaper and blog sites do), the people pulling the punches were doing so without fear of retribution.
Our decision has been met with mixed reaction, though the majority of those who’ve e-mailed me about it have been in support of it. One reader, who comments often as “Thinking Man” on our site, wrote, ” I really enjoy The Sanford Herald, but the comments have gotten out of hand from time to time.”
Another e-mail simply read “thank you!”
The actual story where we announced the decision received 23 “thumbs up” online … the equivalent to a story recommendation. Of all the stories we’ve written since October, it’s received the most thumbs.
But there are people who argue that we’re stomping on free speech and taking away our God-given right to make a fool of ourselves in any forum.
A reader from Virginia (I picked him because his letter was the most critical) wrote, “The decision to not allow comments on your newspaper stories demonstrates cowardice most often associated with those who hide behind the First Amendment but seldom choose to defend it when opportunity presents itself.”
He added, “I can safely say this position is one you would choose to run from rather than defend. Sad indeed.”
I enjoy the First Amendment argument because it goes both ways.
Mr. Virginia, it’s our right to monitor OUR Web site any way we choose. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say newspapers or television stations owe the public any “right” to express their opinions via their medium. Newspapers are privately owned, and if we wanted 24 pages each day of my nonsensical ramblings, we have the right to do that.
Nobody would buy it, but it’d be our right.
The reason we encourage letters to the editor and online comments is because we know that in order to be successful and respected in our community, we need to allow public input and debate.
We still allow “letters to the editor,” and we always will because we can filter the usable from the lawsuit-worthy.
Unfortunately, we’re still learning this online thingy … and until we have a system that works, this is our decision.
And finally, let me add that I believe only 1 to 3 percent of those of you who comment on our Web site have caused the problem. But as you know, it only takes a few to mess up a good thing.
We hope our decision weeds those people out … or at least puts a name and a face to them.

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One thought on “Sunday column: If you can’t play nice …

  1. Thanks, Billy, for taking care of this. I had actually stopped going online to read the paper, wondering what rude comment awaited me at the end. I appreciate what you have done!

    Dana

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