By: Jeff Fleming
Anyone affiliated with the newspaper business knows from experience that it can be a brutally forbidding industry — and one more rewarding and inspiring than any other profession.
Last month, editor John Irby retired from the Bismarck Tribune after a 40-year career (four-and-a-half of them working for the Tribune). In his final column, Irby wrote that his reason for retiring was not to hit the golf course and enjoy his golden years in leisure, but rather to escape the constant onslaught of malevolent comments posted on his website and the “personal character assassination attempts” made against him by local bloggers. “I’m retiring because I am tired of being the whipping boy,” Irby said. “Life is too short to put up with all the noise.”
Even on the news post announcing Irby’s retirement, commentators identified Irby as a “disgrace to journalism,” a parrot for GOP talking points, and a “fattee” (sic) — as if to prove his very point. When a 61-year old thick-skinned newspaper veteran retires because of comments made about him online, you know he’s confronted an adversary with titanic firepower.
The Internet has brought publishers, editors, and reporters closer than ever to their audience. And just how letters to the editor can often be discouraging to read, online comments and blogs can take the wind out of a salty journalist’s sails. But when inflammatory accusations drive traffic to blog sites and commentators are allowed to hide in anonymity, civil discourse (not to mention grammar and punctuation) is tossed to the wayside.
The Internet can have an extreme range of temperaments, from a bubbly friendly disposition to a wicked dark side wielding an assassin’s dagger. The key to online success is harnessing its power and channeling it into positive strategies.
While there’s not much that can be done about bloggers with an axe to grind, publishers are increasingly taking steps to control the discussions that take place on their own websites.
The Des Moines Register is one of many that now require users to sign in with their Facebook profiles before commenting on a story. This ensures that real names appear alongside the comments, theoretically encouraging viewers to keep the discussion respectful and on-topic. In his announcement of the policy change, publisher Rick Green said, “We cringe at some of the vitriolic comments left by commenters cloaked in anonymity that we scrub from the site.”
The Wall Street Journal has gone a step further with the creation of its very own online community. Users develop a profile within WSJ.com and use it to interact with other members of the community — the social interaction occurs on the Journal’s site, not Facebook or Twitter. The community is self-governed, with any flagged posts reported to the webmaster for removal. By giving readers ownership of their online neighborhood, the Journal facilitates the exchange of ideas and constructive debate.
As news sites collectively march into the digital future, they can either fold under pressure or rise to the challenge presented by countless critics. Careful planning and execution are needed to keep the news in focus and the noise in check.