Monday, March 28, 2011

Las Vegas Sun v. Reader Nastygrams: Duh, Winning

It's become so routine in recent weeks to take stock of yet another major laurel for the Las Vegas Sun's "Do No Harm" series led by Marshall Allen and Alex Richards, and this weekend they netted yet another triumph en route to becoming the favorite for the paper's second Pulitzer in three years. So congrats to all involved yet again for winning Best of Show at the National Headliners Awards in Atlantic City. Nicely done.

But the more interesting development from the NHA honors over the weekend was first-place recognition of the LasVegasSun.Com for "journalistic innovation" for "Attempting to Elevate Online Commentary." Here is how the Sun itself described what it's done:

In winning the innovation award, the Sun was recognized for successfully tackling a problem that has bedeviled online journalism ever since the door was opened for readers to comment about stories. The practice has frequently devolved into vitriolic exchanges among readers hiding behind anonymous handles.

The Sun instituted a two-tiered reader comment system, allowing those who prove their identity and register on the site to comment on stories. Those comments remain permanently attached to the story after it is archived.

Other comments, by unregistered readers, are attached to the story but can only be viewed by linking to them on a separate page, and are removed after 72 hours.

That's pretty interesting. Anyone in the media biz knows that reader comments can be useful and enlightening but that unrestrained anonymous blather is counterproductive and cowardly. Back when AOL News decided to freeze all comments for a while as they tried to figure out how to tame this beast, I received countless angry emails -- almost all anonymous, of course -- saying someone had robbed them of their Constitutionally protected right to free speech. Most sites, including AOL, have reverted to allowing someone else to verify the poster's identity via an AOL or Facebook account, for instance, but that's easy to game, too.

Of course, this problem isn't new and it's not restricted to the Web. It's just that because the Internet has made it so much easier, the lunatic letters have completely lost their charm.

Charm? Well, sure. Pretty much every reporter with a sense of humor who has worked for a while has a classic nastygram tacked to their cubicle wall from a completely unhinged reader. Back when it took real effort to do so, there was a peculiar respect owed to whoever did it. Also, it's hilarious how self-important, arrogant and petty people can be when you don't actually have to interact with them.

It still happens, of course, which is why the Las Vegas Weekly ran in print this image of a wonderful bit of prose from "Sucker's Advocate" that came in on a quaint ol' postcard -- Constitutional rights fully intact! -- to editor Ken Miller:

Ken is my editor, by the by. And while this is a fun one, it's not nearly as directly insulting to Ken himself as my all-time classic. It came 12 years ago, also by postcard, when I was covering the county commission for the Review-Journal. It was in response to this hard-hitting piece on the opening of one of the first of those oxygen bars. Yes, this is the stuff that got someone fired up enough to do this:

Frown face!

Now, had this been posted in the comments section of a website, I probably never would have noticed it. Instead, it's always on my desk along with my other favorite keepsakes such as these:

OK, time to do some paying work. Happy Monday and congrats again to the Sun peeps.


Steve Stern said...

I have been appalled by many of the comments on the Sun's site as well. So few are at all enlightening or allow for reasonable engagement that it seems often useless to read them. I don't believe that any comment should be anonymous, that posters should be required to use their real names. After all, if you have an opinion, shouldn't you at least take some pride in your position?

Also, in a way, I think the ability to comment on a story diminishes the old "Letters to the Editor," which in most papers were well-selected for their content.

Nice column, Steve

David Strow said...

Back (way, way back) in the days I worked at my college's newspaper, I received a particularly memorable response to a column I wrote. Four pages, front-and-back, handwritten on yellow legal paper. Totally incoherent, except for the frequent expletives. It was a prized trophy, and it was one of my most cherished possessions for years.

It's not the incoherent ranting that's the problem. It's the lack of effort and style. If someone wants to rant anonymously, make them do it in longhand, the way God intended.

Michael (@jinxclev) said... seems to be doing some interesting work in building a commentary community, including nominating comment posts and promoting them on the site. It's the electronic site for Cleveland's main paper The Plain Dealer.

I know you can't comment on many posts for the site, (and I know you do respond to comments a time) but I do think there is something to be said where the communication there is a 2 way street, especially for a newspaper, either by assigning someone the responsibility to review and reply occasionally or bv the offer. I'm guessing your point of not noticing a comment if it was posted on the web was due to the sheer volume, but I do wonder how many columnists read the comments on the web.

Brendan Buhler said...

My very favorite bit of hate mail was from one guy who used to send so many pieces of hate mail that he glued them onto postcards. (I imagine an entire lifestyle magazine based on little tips like that, "The Frugal Nutter.") Written over the top of my story it said:
"Blah Blah
And then off to the side it said,
"Hey BUHler..
EAT ShiT you
Gloom & Doom
Piece of ShiT
Lib... Commie"

It was a story about a vet taking in stray cats and dogs.

And I love that he was fine with shit, but he had to censor fucking.