Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reader: How do you deal with gossip and rumor?

Anonymous@11:40 last night asked me an important question: "Is there some point at which you stop counting unsubstantiated claims, throw your hands up, and just run it?"

Short answer: No.

Here's the longer answer.

I've devoted more energy to comments in the past month than ever before in the nearly four-year history of this site. Some of you will groan about another discussion about comment moderation here.

But it's worth returning to the subject, because comments are far and away the most-read posts on Gannett Blog. Plus, Gannett is now experimenting with a new policy at two of its newspapers: The Des Moines Register, and The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla. Early evidence points to a dramatic decline in reader participation.

I'm constantly moderating, as I look for a balance between a more civil tone, and respecting the fact there are few places where employees can share information.

Starting with this post last month, I began editing comments much more aggressively. The response has been mixed. Some readers welcomed the change; others objected, saying I was being too aggressive.

To be sure, I could let readers post whatever they want. That's actually easiest for me, because it requires no time-consuming editing at all. This was very nearly the approach when I launched Gannett Blog.

But starting with its relaunch nearly two years ago (yes; it's already been that long), I've sought -- sometimes in vain -- more civility. I join threads more frequently to, as the CEO of Topix said recently, keep "the conversation on the rails." (Topix is the social media site owned jointly by GCI, Tribune Co. and McClatchy Co.)

I fail too often. Yet, I try to never throw my hands up.

Better for business?
And I know I'm not alone. If I could poll GCI's newspaper publishers, I suspect a majority would eliminate reader comments entirely, so long as Corporate didn't require them to make up any lost revenue.

After all, largely unfettered comments are better for business, Topix CEO Chris Tolles told the New York Times. His remarks were revealing for their candor on the subject.

"He defended it on free-speech grounds," the NYT reported. "He said the comments are funny to read, make private gossip public, provide a platform for 'people who have negative things to say' and are better for business."

At the risk of stating the obvious, I welcome your feedback. Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write jimhopkins[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the rail, upper right.


  1. Key phrase "Make private gossip public". These are supposedly NEWS sites. Private gossip might be too but more often is far off the mark, factually incorrect or just flat-out fabrication. I welcome your occasional "course correction" when commenters go off-topic or start sliding off the rails. And I don't mind when you delete the idiocies (Not that I know WHY you deleted them - I just trust you to do the right thing. You know, the way we used to enjoy the general public's trust - before the industry started pandering in a desperate attempt to maximize revenues? Remember those days?)

  2. That free speech comment is so far off the mark. Readers always scream free speech when we delete their comments, and the editor always replies that it is our site, so your free speech plays by our rules.

  3. Jim, the big problem is you rely on unsourced gossip.

    A prime example is the topic of single copy prices. When you got the "tip," you came on and asked if anyone else had heard that.

    Shouldn't YOU be checking sources and trying to get confirmation, rather than just casting a line to the peanut gallery? I know, you'll respond with some lecture about crowdsourcing, or how Gannett won't release the information, etc.

    Try cultivating a few sources. You've had more than two years to do so.

  4. I appreciate your work in keeping the comments section civil, respectful, and informative, Jim. Keep up the good work.

    10:01, wouldn't you say that asking for reader tips is one way to cultivate sources? It's possible Jim is working behind the scenes too, but it would be silly not to at least ask around here. Take a xanax and lay down for a spell.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. 12:09 I encourage you to repost your comment -- without he name-calling.

  7. Jim, I like how you delete that post but keep the xanax comment. Funny how the xanax comment agrees with you, but the other one disagreed.

    The main point is that cultivating a source does not mean going on to a site and asking "Has anyone heard about this?" That's just weak and lazy. It's also a common tactic with some writers today.

    Just calling it crowdsourcing and reciting some definition from a card doesn't change how lazy that tactic is.

    That goes for you, too, Jim. Now you can find a reason to delete this, too.

  8. Seems to me there are three kinds of troublesome comments:

    -- Outright stalkers and disrupters -- a handful of people who seem intent on destabilizing the Blog by constant obscene references and attacks.

    Those should be deleted immediately. No one will object.

    -- Character assassination. A slippery slope, but somehow preventing personal attacks and slurs on Gannett personnel seems the right thing to do. Reputations are very easily destroyed online, and what happens here on the Blog isn't that different from immature high school bullying online where kids end up committing suicide or having their reputations endlessly smeared.

    Some rightful criticism might be lost, but making this a "safer" place to intelligently discuss the company is not a bad thing.

    -- Unsubtantiated postings -- layoffs and the like. On this one, I suggest crowd sourcing IS the way to go. Everyone should take such things with a grain of salt. And yes, if Jim can check them out, even better.

  9. 1:24, I'd agree with all of that. But your third point has one weakness. There are too many fools here who are eager to run with whatever stupid rumor pops up here.

  10. How do you deal with gossip and rumors? I think unfortunately online you have no choice but to ignore it for the most part. But let me ask this question: The 1st Amendment guarantees the right of free speech publicly and anonymously, but freedom of speech is not the freedom to lie and abuse, though, is it? It's interesting to read Chris Tolles' defend the lack of moderation in his forums because they don't really allow free speech. Topix will allow their bullies to libel, attack and malign a person's character but they will not allow those targeted to use their forum as a platform to defend themselves. In fact, you can see a screen cap I captured of their idea of moderation on my blog - Topix admins removed my name and changed it to a hateful slur.

    With you have a news aggregator masquerading as a news site, hiding behind the 1st amendment and federal law while actually the bulk of their traffic comes from free for all forums where anonymous members (who use proxy servers) abuse and libel each other without censor. It's morally wrong on so many levels, among other things.


Jim says: "Proceed with caution; this is a free-for-all comment zone. I try to correct or clarify incorrect information. But I can't catch everything. Please keep your posts focused on Gannett and media-related subjects. Note that I occasionally review comments in advance, to reject inappropriate ones. And I ignore hostile posters, and recommend you do, too."

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