The Buffalo News’ Problems Must Be All Fixed, Now

26 Jun

Donn Esmonde somewhat needlessly picked up where Margaret Sullivan left off last week with respect to the Buffalo News deciding now to treat online reader comments similarly to letters to the editor, with real, verified names. Esmonde pats the Buffalo News on the back for getting rid of what were oftentimes truly awful, reprehensible comments.

I’m sure it took many hours for people at the News to police and delete racist or defamatory comments. Needlessly.

Anyone commenting after an online story—or commenting on another comment—has to use his or her name, verifiable with a phone number. No more hiding behind “MailGuy272”, “NYCGal” or other on-screen masks. Everybody stands behind their words. And everyone has to live with the reactions, criticisms and judgments of other folks in the online forum.

The Wild West days of cyberassaults are over. Hallelujah!

The ugliness wrought by the no-holds-barred forum bothered me and a lot of my colleagues. It upset people whose names appeared in articles and were unfairly attacked. Readers I heard from were disgusted by descents into gutter-level discourse.

All columnists and reporters at this newspaper puts their name behind their words. I think it is only fair that anyone reacting to their writing does the same.

Time and again, I have seen anonymity— whether in a blog or a letter or a phone call—bring out the worst in human nature. When someone calls and starts pounding on me for something I write, I ask for a name. If I do not get it, the conversation is over. If I do, the conversation— nearly every time—rises to a higher level.

Well, who the hell asked the Buffalo News to permit comments on regular News stories in the first place? The New York Times doesn’t allow you to post comments to stories that appear in the paper – only to some stories, and some posts on its various blogs, like City Room. Instead, the Times has a bar across the top where it’s set up its own micro-social-networking site called TimesPeople, enabling you to recommend stories to people you’ve friended there, and also to post links to stories with your comments to Twitter, Facebook, and other existing social networking platforms. (You can follow me on TimesPeople here.)

In addition, every single comment posted to City Room and other Times Blogs has gone through pre-moderation. While the Times doesn’t require real names, it vets every comment before it’s seen by others.

In other words, the Buffalo News is doing it wrong.

Is the News truly shocked that people cloaked in anonymity will say stupid things? Does the News really think that slapping a commenting system to its online presence makes all done its leap into the 21st century?

No one asked for, nor needs, the ability to post a comment to the News’ site about routine News stories. Columns and opinion pieces? Sure, that would make sense, since people might want to express divergent opinions. And in those cases, the news can moderate each comment prior to posting.

The main point gets somewhat lost amidst Esmonde’s wordy sanctimony, but he calls out anonymity as the main culprit. It can be summed up as: those internet people!

Anonymity, pseudonyms, noms de plume – they’re all longstanding traditions in internet discussions, going way back to the free-wheeling days of usenet newsgroups. It moved on to blogs where writers assumed online identities like “Atrios”, “Calpundit”, “Kos”, “Allahpundit”, and reader/commenters did the same.

The reasons for anonymity? Yes, they allowed people to say things they may not otherwise dare say – but while that lets racist morons write racist garbage, it also allows insiders, officials, involved parties to provide important and sometimes delicate insight into issues that they may not feel free to provide if they had to use their real names. It’s happened quite often on my blog and others.

The Buffalo News presumably has no prohibition against its journalists providing anonymity to sources for stories. In fact, it does so quite routinely, as do all responsible journalists. Yet that practice runs the risk that stories sometimes won’t get pursued to their fullest extent so that the writers can preserve and protect their sources, and access to them.

It’s so patently evident that the Buffalo News has absolutely no clue how to manage its online presence. It’s lost many top-notch, veteran journalists over the past several years through buyouts and early retirement. Its circulation is down, and its longtime monopoly over civic information, opinion, and discussion has long gone. The News has no plan or strategy for survival in a world where it’s forced to compete not just with one other paper, but with slews of internet sites devoted to news and ideas in the WNY region. It tries to do what the blogs and social media sites do, but for the most part it’s clear that they’re doing it in a slapdash manner – it’s an afterthought. I’m told that the sports blogs at the News are quite excellent, but on the political news side the only one that has any relevance or influence is Jim Heaney’s Outrages & Insights, which has been on hiatus for a few months due to a tragic accident.

And because Heaney expresses opinion along with his information on his blog, it makes perfect sense to permit comments there.

If it hasn’t already happened, the day will come soon where more people will obtain news about Buffalo and WNY on a device, rather than through reading a newspaper. The iPad alone should be a massive wake-up call for newspapers throughout the country.

The Buffalo News loves anonymity, except when it’s employed by the masses. The Buffalo News has to come to peace with the fact that the internet exists, and that it operates differently from the Newspaper business, and it needs to do more adapting, and less grampa-doesn’t-like-the-rock-and-roll-music.

11 Responses to “The Buffalo News’ Problems Must Be All Fixed, Now”

  1. Steve June 26, 2010 at 8:29 am #

    Pundit, I don’t believe I’m saying this…but for the first time I’m in total agreement with you. OMG I hope I’m not becoming a liberal DEM! 🙂

  2. AL June 26, 2010 at 9:53 am #

    Donny Osmond is an abrasive, schoolyard bully. I think the News is not used to criticism it can’t control, ie don’t like a letter to the editor, don’t print it.

    Donny came to our neighborhood after one of our neighbors was gunned down in front of his house and wrote his usual psudoliberal crap.

    “Wasteland breed violence – Bordered roughly by Main Street and Hertel and Kenmore avenues, the Y-shaped, 30-acre site is a Bermuda Triangle of trouble — and has been for years.
    Beer cans litter the top of the old railroad trestle. Dirt paths run like map lines through the wooded acres. A footpath atop the elevated track bed allows easy, hidden passage along the backs of neighborhoods.
    It is an odd stretch of wilderness in the middle of Buffalo, owned by the NFTA and the city. Folks on a recent afternoon walked dogs and pushed baby carriages on a nearby bike path. But fear leaves the place deserted after dark.”

    Many of us asked him to come back and write about our efforts to clean up what is to many a valued area not a wasteland, but no. Tap dance on peoples misfortunes and use them to sell a few papers is OK. Writing anonymously about things you care about is bad, at least according the the rather abusive emails I received from Donny on this subject.

    Hard to see how a few anonymous bloggers writing about things because they care, not because they are trying to make a profit for billionaire Warren Buffet, are a huge problem.

  3. Mike Bauman June 26, 2010 at 10:52 am #

    The Chicago Tribune allows unfettered comments after news articles. The result is as beautifully vulgar and racist as on the Buffalo News site.

  4. Brian Collins June 26, 2010 at 12:21 pm #

    “In other words, the Buffalo News is doing it wrong.”

    That pretty much sums up the News.

  5. scribe June 27, 2010 at 8:24 am #

    The real tuth is sometimes hard to take for the self appointed journalists.Ben Franklin and our founding fathers used anoymous pamplets to push revolution across the country.Those concepts , later memorized in the Bill of Rights, started in a format that is no different than the “scandolous” internet that the Buffalo News now seeks to downgrade.The jouralist want us to believe that the “truth” that they provide ,in the form of their opininions,should not be contradicted by the lowly masses and unwased ill informed public.Most local publications are basically a pay for play system.If you want good press in Erie or Niagara County buy an ad in The News, Gazette or Reporter,they will only be happy to reciprocate with a nice plug for your business.canidacy or project.Journalistic ethics and responsibility are simply sold out.So as not to upset the apple cart of truth for sale, you do not provid for a response to your publications opinions,which have been previously sold.You sel,more ads this way and insure that the commercial and political poitions of your publications are protected.

  6. PJ June 27, 2010 at 8:36 pm #

    Once the Courier Express closed this became a no-newspaper town.

  7. seamonkeyavenger June 28, 2010 at 3:33 pm #

    Sorry, Alan, but for once I disagree (and I’m a HUGE fan!!). Have you ever read the comments posters wrote? I have. None of them offer ANY grain of wisdom or insight that we can’t all live without. Most of them were vile and racist and hateful. What’s the point of letting these closeted KKK morons spew their venom publicly all day. I always found it ironic about how these morons would rail against “lazy” people on welfare, while they, themselves, clearly did little more with their own lives than to post to the News boards day and night. Why should the Buffalo News (or anyone else for that matter) be required to provide a public forum for these children to posts their inane rants? Let the jerks start their own hate blog.

    • Alan Bedenko June 28, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

      As I explained, there is no need in the first place for the Buffalo News to permit or solicit comments for run-of-the-mill reporting stories at all. No one asked for that, and it adds nothing whatsoever to anything. Comments may be desirable at the tail end of columns and opinion pieces, but even then they could allow complete anonymity and just require all comments to be moderated before they appear. I realize that the comments on the News’ site were almost entirely made up of ignorance and racism. The point is how to handle it, and the New York Times’ system seems quite reasonable and implementable, and it would enable people who have a very good reason to remain anonymous to post in that way.

  8. Howard Owens July 5, 2010 at 10:11 am #

    Alan writes, “In other words, the Buffalo News is doing it wrong”

    No actually, they’re getting it all right. It is simply unethical for news sites to allow unvetted anonymous comments.

    Here’s more I’ve written along those lines.

    “Anonymity, pseudonyms, noms de plume – they’re all longstanding traditions in internet discussions, going way back to the free-wheeling days of usenet newsgroups. It moved on to blogs where writers assumed online identities like “Atrios”, “Calpundit”, “Kos”, “Allahpundit”, and reader/commenters did the same. ”

    None of those sites are news sites, who’s primary purpose is to provide credible original reporting. It’s a false comparison.

    Further, a particular news site going to a real names policy in no way diminishes a persons ability to be anonymous in any other forum that allows anonymity. There’s nothing prohibiting a reader from setting up a blog on Word Press and anonymous bashing whatever and whomever he or she chooses. The Buffalo News going to a real names policy in no way is a threat to online anonymity.

    “The Buffalo News presumably has no prohibition against its journalists providing anonymity to sources for stories. In fact, it does so quite routinely, as do all responsible journalists.”

    What you fail to note is that when a reporter grants anonymity, a process has taken place (at least, ideally), where a reporter and editor have discussed the legitimacy of granting anonymity, weighing the probative value of the information provided, the motivation of the source, the credibility of the source and whether the information can be obtained by any other means, and verifying the accuracy of the information as best as possible (if not completely). No such vetting process takes place with anonymous comments.

    So, again, it’s a false comparison.

    And I’m completely flummoxed your argument that “nobody asked for” and there’s “no need” for comments on certain stories. If nobody asked for them, then why is it an issue? Nobody will comment on them. And the idea that there shouldn’t be comments on this or that story runs entirely counter to the whole notion of freedom. Why deny somebody the ability to comment on even the most mundane news item. You never know what information might come out. It could be quite worthwhile. On The Batavian, some of the most interesting conversations occur on some of the most seemingly minor stories.

    If you’re going to moderate comments before they appear, you might as well not even have comments. It’s a conversation killer.

    Nobody has a good reason to post anonymously. If you can’t say it with your name on it, you probably shouldn’t say it. However, if it’s legitimate news that you want to tip the paper to it, then there are innumerable ways with most news organizations to provide anonymous tips.

    At The Batavian, we get anonymous tips on a routine basis.

    In a later post, you quote some comments and imply that if the poster hadn’t been able to post anonymously, the information might not have come out. I’m simply going to call bull shit on that. I’ve enough experience on requiring real name comments to know that people post just about anything (including hateful crap) with their real names attached. And the fact of the matter is, such information as you cite gains in credibility when a real person with a real name takes responsibility for it.

    I realize that there has been a certain spin to the Buffalo News going to real names that it will clean up the comments. That’s not the real reason news orgs need to adopt real name policies — it’s simply a matter of ethics. A real name policy in and of itself will not clean up comments. There is simply no substitute for involved, active moderators monitoring in and participating in the comments. Running a successful online community is not a “set it and forget it” process. It takes time, intelligence and effort.

    Alan, you’re familiar enough with The Batavian to know — we require real names, we have a robust and diverse community of contributors, with a largely civil exchange, and plenty of people not scarred off by attaching their real names to say what’s really on their minds.

    There is simply no logical, reasonable argument I’ve come across yet that would excuse a news organization such as the Buffalo News allowing anonymous comments.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Buffalo Rising - June 26, 2010

    Buffalo News Tells the Internet to Go Away…

    One week ago, Buffalo News Editor Margaret Sullivan announced that The News would be “seeking a return to civility in online comments” by forcing commenters to provide their real names. Anyone who has been paying a modicum of attention to The Ne…

  2. Anonymity Alone? | WNYmedia.net - July 6, 2010

    […] Batavian’s Howard Owens submitted this comment, disagreeing with my assessment of the Buffalo News’ comment policy revision: Alan writes, […]

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