Friday, January 20, 2006

If You Can’t Stand the Heat . . .

I’m not exactly sure what the title ‘executive editor’ entails at the Washington Post, but Jim Brady is it. Jim lost his cool and shut down the reader comments feature on post.blog, a blog the paper says is ‘dedicated to sharing news by and about The Post and washingtonpost.com.’


Note to Jim: Panic is not dedication.


JimbradyAdmittedly, it’s an edgy world out there as various forms of media struggle to find their stride in the Internet environment. But Jim’s an AOL veteran, having left the Post for that supposedly Internet-savvy company, returning a couple years ago to the WP. AOL has had its own problems, but we can assume that being stunned into submission over a weekend by 700 e-mails was not one of them.


The flap (and a small one it is) was caused by a posting on an item about Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell's recent column about the Abramoff scandal: Getting the Story on Jack Abramoff. Her mention of the fact that Abramoff has spread his largesse among Democrats and Republicans alike (if not equally) touched off a deluge of ‘personal attacks, profanity and hate speech,’ according to Brady.


With the editorial equivalent of a trembly lip, Brady wrote about the comment closing as follows: "Transparency and reasoned debate are crucial parts of the Web culture, and it's a disappointment to us that we have not been able to maintain a civil conversation, especially about issues that people feel strongly (and differently) about. We're not giving up on the concept of having a healthy public dialogue with our readers, but this experience shows that we need to think more carefully about how we do it." 


Well, Jim, I don’t quite know how to tell you this without hurting your already offended sensitivities, but interactive web sites have been taking this in stride for years now. It’s usually called ‘rules for posting’ and is enforced by moderators. Bloggers who don’t accept such prescripts are warned, their posting not accepted and, if they persist, they're blocked from the site.


Not a lot of ‘careful thinking’ required, just some WP intern staff to use their judgment and keep the ball somewhere inside the foul lines. They don’t cost much and, if a newspaper the size and prestige of the Washington Post decides to have an interactive blog (which is a great, if not very inventive, idea), then it ought to be able to hold the line against a few screamers.


The world is going digital, Jim. Seven hundred postings is what you want to have, it proves you’ve found a hot-button issue and newspapers kill for hot issues. The newspaper business is not in danger from ‘personal attacks, profanity and hate speech,’ but it is in great risk of irrelevancy, as news continues to be fed to us too quickly for print runs.


The Net is a weird-ball place, full of fun, information, thoughtful insight and deranged idiots. But it’s where the newspapering business is going and the kitchen hasn’t even begun to get hot.
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See Taking My Country Personally on my personal web site.