Comments and the Washington Post

Do you care if the Washington Post has comments?

There are plenty of places to post comments on the web, and lots of ways to find out what people think about articles in the Washington Post.

Frankly I understand what a nightmare it must have been maintaining a centralized cesspool of hate and irrelevant immaturity. Why should the shareholders of the Washington Post fund that? Couldn’t those people post their nutty ideas on some other site?

21 responses to this post.

  1. With the improvment of blog search and sites that bring together ideas, it shouldn’t matter if comments are turned off. Its a nice way to keep a conversation on point and the author can respond without constantly updating a post. It’s a free(for now) world in blogging, washington post can do what they want.


  2. they should/could do Trackbacks if they cant manage comments


  3. I care that comments cannot be left everywhere.

    There are only two reasons that comments can be left out.

    1.) you have a stalking freak (group of freaks in your case) that wants to destroy something better than the freaks lesser self image, and actual worth.

    2.) Some spambot overwhelms the automatic garbage deletion routines.

    Any other reason is rationalization, and ego protection.

    The main reason authors/creators do not like comments from guests is that a portion of the comments oppose the position taken by the author and the statments made in the commented article.

    Not all of the statments threaten the stand taken by the author. Most of those opposing statments are diatribes of people blowing off steam, and those can be disregarded by a thinking human. But those rational statments of opposition, by the literate few, threaten the authors vision of reality.

    I like comments.


  4. Posted by Jeff on January 24, 2006 at 6:13 pm

    Dave, I saw the deleted messages before they were deleted. 99% or more were fine. People trying to get a reasoned response from the reporters who implied they were interested in just that.
    Instead, comments were turned off with hundreds of them deleted; later they were turned back on with many restored, but comparison with cached versions appeared to tell a story that wasn’t complimentary to the Washington Post with regard to the selective editing of comments by the Post.

    Aside from that, someone at the Post must not have understood what a potential can of worms they were opening when they turned on comments in the first place.

    Just my thougths.


  5. Posted by Wm. Marks on January 24, 2006 at 7:07 pm

    Canada’s Globe and Mail ( has comments. They’re moderated, but it has seemed manageable for a national paper here. Moderation should scale. I don’t see why they had to turn off comments for the WP.


  6. “Frankly I understand what a nightmare it must have been maintaining a centralized cesspool of hate and irrelevant immaturity. Why should the shareholders of the Washington Post fund that?”

    Dave: Well, if you wanna be corporate about it… the shareholders should love on-site comments because comments allow their employees to do direct damage control. Forcing people to voice their opinions in third-party venues makes it harder for the paper to respond to issues that arise. And putting on a black hat for a moment, off-site commentary also makes it much harder for the Post to control what is said about it.

    Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.


  7. Posted by billg on January 25, 2006 at 5:50 am

    Like letters to the editor, comments add little, if anything, of news value to a newspaper. Like the letters, they can provide a snapshot view of the opinions of a tiny fraction of a paper’s readers.

    Many argue that the near-realtime two-way dialogue offered by website commenting is a great democratizer, that it effectively levels the field. But, isn’t that confusing the capability of the underlying technology with the actual behavior of people? The WaPo’s comments may have been open to anyone with a functioning browser, but we simply don’t know (can’t know?) if people who those commenters really represent — all WaPo readers or some sort of self-defining demographic? Given the overblown use of the word “community” to tag fans of any website whose bread-and-butter is reader-provided input — think Slashdot and Digg — I lean toward the self-defining demographic side. (Anyone who’s paid attention to this sort of thing, as long ago as the days of DOS-based BBS systems — knows that many participants in such online forums acquire a sense of ownership and responsibility about the system. All completely bogus, of course. )

    The WaPo is a commercial news provider, not a public forum. Everything that appears in the paper is there because someone decided it should be there. That includes the comments. The WaPo has no obligation to print hate-filled venom and slander in its letters column and it has no obligation to allow the same to appear in comments. More imporantly, it has no obligation to even have a letters section or a commenting cabability.


  8. Two thoughts: 1) I agree that with blogging and the mighty almighty Google (praise be), people’s rants can go on unabated. This is good. I love my irant here at WordPress. Everyone should have their own outlet. However 2) isn’t a comment at a newspaper website rather analogous to an editorial in a print newspaper? Yes, judging by the comment directly above my own. Media have changed although the intent has not. I happen to disagree that letters to the editor are useless. They are the voice of the people. They are real responses to events and opinions represented by the press. The Post could moderate the comments much like they sort through letters to the editor they still receive.


  9. Posted by Marcelo Lopez on January 25, 2006 at 7:50 am

    ijak put it well. My addition would be, regardless of the venue. Unless the commentary is clearly specious ( spam ), why not ? If someone, anyone, is creating a venue for expression of speech, especially when the venue espouses said freedom on it’s own behalf ; has a problem with commentary being placed there which goes in contrary with it’s stance, THAT is a problem.

    So what that some of the crazies are going to come out and jibber-jabber about some half-cooked ideology. It may be ridiculous to maintain that, but think about it for a moment. You wouldn’t like to be told to keep certain topics of commentary to yourself. Why would any of the crazies like it ? And even so, like irant said, they already mod through letters to the editor, why should this venue be any different ?

    I don’t know who precisely said it, but I have to say that the most free words put to writing were ( and I may not be accurately quoting here ):

    “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend your right to say them…”


  10. … hmmm … when a media channell is very popular, me thinks that it needs to start allowing for the tagging of comments. Give the conversation some extra dimension .. let it spread out … let people tune into the area of the conversation that interests them. Turning off comments is just going back to Media 1.0 … remember, when you had no voice. Also as we do it here at fastblogit, the group (in this case the Washington Post staff), always has the right to delete comments that are off topic or inapporpriate to the forum. The staff should not shirk from exercising that editorial control. More discussion on my blog.


  11. Posted by billg on January 25, 2006 at 10:22 am

    >>”…isn’t a comment at a newspaper website rather analogous to an editorial in a print newspaper?”

    No. It is analgous to the guy sitting next to you in the subway talking about the story he just read in the newspaper. Newspaper editorials are written to reflect the opinion of the newspaper, as an institution. They need to be distinguished from bylined columnists, who create columns, not editorials, that express only their individual point of view.

    >>”I happen to disagree that letters to the editor are useless. They are the voice of the people.”

    Leters to the editor are not useless. They can make for interesting readding. But, they are not the “voice of the people”. They are selected according to the criteria of the newspaper. Given the space constraints in a typical newspaper, it seems silly to assume that a daily handful of edited letters represents the voice of anyone in all beyond their authors. Likewise, with website commments, we know nothing about the people who post them. It is a mistake to look at a website overflowing with comments and make assumptions about who or what those comments represent.

    >>”The Post could moderate the comments much like they sort through letters to the editor they still receive.”

    Why should they? As the Post’s original statement said, it was taking too much time and money to police and edit the comments. People who are trying to earn a living have better things to do than deleting and banning the spewings of foulmouthed venom spitters. (If those are really the “voice of the people”, we’re in bad shape.)


  12. billg, I agree with most of what you say, and it is well said. However i have troubles with “Likewise, with website commments, we know nothing about the people who post them.” which is by and large untrue on the blogosphere. That is why we identify ourselves and express ourselves on our own blogs. Go look at mine, i think you will get a grasp of who i am in proportion to the amount of time you want to spend there. Unfortunately some people deem it unimportant to participate in the blogosphere. Oh well …


  13. Posted by billg on January 26, 2006 at 6:28 am

    Seth, you’ve pointed to the potential for readers to “get a grasp” on the people behind the posts and the comments.

    The technology of the web provides that potential, but it is inappropriate (although common) to equate the possibilities offered by tech with actual human behavior. People shape the use of technology much more than technology shapes the behavior of people.

    Certainly, if I’ve been reading an individual blog for an extended period of time, I will have formed my own opinion of that blogger’s personality. (However, this doesn’t apply to publications like the Post and its commenters. The reporters are engaged in professional, not personal, activity. Even if most commenters blog, and include their URL in their comments, we’re not going to immerse ourselves in all those blogs in order to acquire context for the comments.)

    In turn, our understanding of a blogger is based on how that blogger decides to portray himself or herself on the web. Words and images are the best intermediaries. I think it would be naive to imagine that a blogger’s posts are not crafted to present only those aspects of his life and personality that he wants to present, and packaged and delivered with the intent of provoking particular responses in readers.

    That’s been the fundamental nature of all writing for all time, regardless of the tool used to do the writing. In that regard, I don’t see why carving letters on a server is any different from carving letters into a stone tablet.


  14. My bad. I used editorial and letters to the editor interchangeably. I meant only the letters to the editor with respect to being analogous to comments on a website.

    Good points, though. The basic problem is that what I consider a convenient way to leave a brief letter to the editor, feedback, what have you, is what someone else might consider an effective way to spam, flame, etc. Like most things within our ever-shrinking world, those spaces have overlapped and greyed thanks to technology.

    Well, if there are no comments on the Post, there’s always email for feedback. That certainly would cut down on the casual flamings, but part of the point of comments is that they can be a running conversation. Much like this. I still maintain that such conversations would be a boon to the Post. And, pragmatically, anything that gets more eyes on their web site and thus their ads, brings them money. Comments, I believe, could pay for the cost of their own moderator.


  15. billg, I almost always jump to a commenter’s blog if they leave a URL. That is my “actual human behavior”. That does give a very certain depth of contact and personality to the words of the comment. A a byline composed of 5 letters, such as “billg”, can never provide that depth. To ignore that is to miss the point of the blogosphere.


  16. Posted by billg on January 26, 2006 at 8:26 am

    Seth, I’m not discussing the point of the blogosphere. (However, I’d contend the point of any given blog is whatever the author intends it to be. The point of the blogosphere is simply the aggregate of all those individual decisions, much as the point of the “TVsphere” is the aggregate of decisions made by individual TV producers and station owners. Nothing very millenial or transformational.)

    Now, you may check out a commenter’s website. But, to the case at hand, that’s pretty impractical when a publication like the Post attracts hundreds of comments to individual posts. So, again, while technology makes it possible to do something (visit every website of every commenter), life in the real world means it isn’t going to happen. As a result, we read those comments without context and without insight into the commenters.

    Finally, my essential point is that when anyone writes, they write with the intent of converying some limited range of information to the reader and to provoke a partiular response in the reader. The tools we use to do that writing make no difference. The words and the pictures a writer creates are deliberately crafted to act as intermediaries between the writer and the world. Writers have no obligation to do anything else. They can’t do anything else.

    Minor case in point: I don’t provide my full name here. But, if I did, you’d have no more insight into “BillG” than I do into “Seth Russell” who uses his full name. If I included a link to my blog, and if you looked at it, you’d read content that I’d deliberately created to expose some facets of myself while deliberately ignoring and obscuring or distorting other facets. That’s what writers do.


  17. BillG, obviously people’s projections on their blogs serve their own intentions. That applies to the editorial staff of the Post as well as to any other kind of public expression. My point is just that the blogosphere allows us to delve into those persona, in a way that traditional newspaper and broadcast media does not. If you read my blog, you know that i am a liberal and a techo freak and that i am very much into folksonomy … that is a whole lot more than the string of characters in my name. Comments by real people on articles published by traditional Media on the web are an important emergence in our culture. I hope that the Washington Post will not throw out the baby with the bath water. Hate mongers comments can be easily deleted.


  18. Posted by billg on January 26, 2006 at 4:57 pm

    Seth, I think it is important for readers to attempt to understand the context in which an author wrote whatever it is that they are reading. While the personality of an individual writer can have an impact, in a professional outfit like the WaPo, other factors are likely to take precedence. These might include the ability of the editorial staff to withstand pressure from advertisers, the willingness of editors and copy editors to allow personal or institutional political stances to influence story selection, placement and headline content, etc.

    All publications appear in, and are created in, a particular context that may or may not be visible to the casual reader.

    This applies, of course, to blogs. But, it isn’t a matter of an author’s “projections”. It is very much a matter of conscience intent. If I’m acting as a newspaper editor, as I have, I work under an obligation to make a good faith effort to keep my personal opinions and biases from impacting the words and pictures I put before my readers. (I know there is a school of thought that argues that is impossible, but I don’t agree.)

    Likewise, if I am a blogger, as I have been, then I deliberately work to hide or obscure facets of myself that i don’t want to reveal to readers.

    So, yes, if I read your blog, I’d know you’d chosen to expose those aspects of your personality that are “liberal…techno…and very much into folksonomy…”. What, then, am I to make of that? I assume your blog contains content of personal interest. Why should I be surprised if, in fact, it does? You are writing with only self-imposed constraints. You aren’t employed as a reporter or editor by the WaPo. If you were, you would be paid to adhere to certain standards and certain layers of supervision and editorial control that would behoove you to eliminate evidence of those influences from your writing. Simply put, if I was your editor and you didn’t eliminate those biases from your writing, I wouldn’t publish it.

    Comparisons, then, between writing in a personal vehicle like a blog and a professional vehicle like the WaPo aren’t necessarily germane.

    I agree that comments on websites are interesting. i don’t agree that they are especially important or newsworthy. Comments gathered from 100 random people in the street are no less and no more newsworthy than 100 comments at a webs site. I don’t think comments add much, if any, news value to a site like the WaPo. I find most comments at news sites and political blogs are biased, if not bigoted, ill-informed, expressive of unexamined opinion masquerading as fact, and bereft of evidence. To cut to the chase, a report about a car wreck is news; 500 comments on that report aren’t.

    Regardless of how easy it might be to moderate comments, a publication like the WaPO has to decide if it wants to pay its staff to do that. Problems with abusive comments are rampant across the web, and many sites have responded by turning them off after all technological attempts to control them failed. If I was the WaPo, I’d think twice before paying my staff to spend their days weeding spam, obscenities, and lawsuit fodder from the comments, keeping in mind that the number of readers gained by enabling comments might be substantially fewer than the number of readers lost because they were affronted by offensive comments.


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  20. What about banning the ip address?


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