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Post Web Site Halts Comments Section

January 24, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: The Jack Abramoff scandal is one of the most explosive stories in politics these days but when Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell recently wrote about the paper’s coverage of this story, little did she know that she was setting off a firestorm of her own. In her Jan. 15 column, Howell described her paper’s reporting as showing how Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist, had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties.

She was then deluged with close to 1,000 comments, most critical of her suggestion that both parties were complicit in the scandal. Howell then posted a clarification saying: “A better way to have said it would have been that Abramoff ‘directed’ contributions to both parties while giving personal contributions only to Republicans.”

But the online onslaught didn’t stop. The washingtonpost.com then decided to shut down the comments section of a reader blog site temporarily, stating that contributors were violating prohibitions against personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech.

In a follow-up column in this past Sunday’s paper, Howell quoted some of the more printable e-mails:

“Yes, The Washington Post needs an enema, and Howell should be the first thing that gets medicinally removed.”

“You Deborah Howell, stop lying about Democrats getting money from Abramoff…Think and do your research, and stop being an idiot.”

The 50-year-old newspaper veteran also further explained her original column, but stopped short of issuing a formal correction, prompting a new round of some 1,400 e-mails to the Post since Sunday.

JEFFREY BROWN: More now on this case and beyond from Jim Brady, editor of Washingtonpost.com. It was his decision to temporarily remove the comments section of the Post’s blogging site about Deborah Howell. And Xeni Jardin, co-editor of the popular weblog BoingBoing.net and a contributor on technology and culture issues to Wired magazine and NPR.

Welcome to both of you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jim Brady, starting with you, what makes this interesting in the first place is that you specifically created these sites to bring readers to you, right?

JIM BRADY: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: So this is a good thing.

JIM BRADY: Yeah, absolutely. Feedback from readers is really, really important, and in the last year we’ve launched somewhere between 25 and 30 blogs on the site that allow for reader comments.

We’ve activated a feature where you can actually see what bloggers are saying about Post articles on Post articles. We’ve actually made it very easy for people to read an article and immediately see what people outside the Post community are thinking about it.

So for us, you know, we felt like this was something we had to do because the tenure of the conversation got beyond what we’re willing to accept.

And we’ve heard a lot in the last week that Internet is the wild wild west and you just have to accept it; people are going to say what they’re going to say. And my argument to that is I don’t run the Web at large; I run Washingtonpost.com, and we get to set the rules for our own site.

And we’re all for reasoned debate; we’re all for being criticized for our journalist, but we have to set rules.

JEFFREY BROWN: You wanted the feedback but then you got more than you bargained for in a sense. How do you decide what’s okay and what’s not?

JIM BRADY: I think basic rules of decency is what we’re looking for: No profanity, no personal attacks. Don’t pose as somebody else when you put your name on the site. Just follow the basic rules, and if you follow those basic rules, you can attack the Post and its journalism as much as you’d like. We’re just asking you to try and stay civil and because a lot of people want to participate in civil debates, and the minute they see name calling, they think, why am I here, I’m just going to go to somewhere else.

And we want The Washington Post Web site to be a place where people will have a conversation that discusses facts and doesn’t, you know, disintegrate into name calling and baiting in a sense.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ms. Jardin, how common is this sort of conundrum and how do others manage their sites, their online communities?

XENI JARDIN: Well, it’s not something that’s unique to The Washington Post or even newspapers. Other blogs, other Web sites that allow anonymous comments, it’s just a problem that crops up when a really hot issue is being discussed or when the site starts to get really a lot of traffic.

Part of the issue here is that when people are able to comment anonymously, I mean, we all believe in the importance of free and anonymous and protected speech on the Internet. But it seems that when people are able to sort of fling mud without having to be attached to any kind of identity online or otherwise, things can get out of hand very quickly. So it’s definitely a crisis that happens commonly on the Internet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, staying with you because a lot of our viewers won’t know much about this world of blogs, are there any rules that apply in terms of how they’re run or what kind of standards there are for commentary, anything at all?

XENI JARDIN: Well, there are certainly standards of good behavior and good etiquette just like there are in the real world but not everybody chooses to follow them.

I mean, if you imagine ten or 20 years ago, if you wanted to reply to something that mattered to you in the newspaper, you’d write a letter to the editor but that letter wouldn’t automatically be stuck to the newspaper that everybody else sees, and chances are you’d attach a real name to it or something and there’s a kind of responsibility that goes with that when you’re not anonymous.

So what some sites have done is require people to go through some kind of registration procedure. You could even use a fake name but just that act of registering with a site, it sort of puts a lid on the drive-by shootings as people call them when people just go to a comment section and write profanity or obscene things about an editor or what-have-you, it kind of keeps that a little bit in check.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jim Brady, you mentioned this sort of wild west aspect of the Internet, and I think most people probably think of it as free space. But who owns the site? Somebody actually owns the site, right? That would be you, The Washington Post?

JIM BRADY: Right. We own the site and I think that’s why we feel like we can make the rules and I think — I mean, there’s been an incredible increase in the amount of interactivity on the Web in the last three or four years, especially coming out of the mainstream media. This used to be a very weak area in a lot of online media sites; they didn’t allow for comments and they didn’t have blogs and they didn’t have live discussions that put their, you know, journalists out there to answer questions.

But at the end of the day, you know, we’re going to do more and more of that. The irony is we had a couple of major launches planned in the next couple months that would increase that act of being more transparent to the users, and what we’ve learned with the activities of the last week is that we need to do a better job technology-wise of being able to filter out the ones that are problematic.

We had turned it into more of a manual process than it probably can be long term.

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain to us how do you actually institute filters or watch what comes in? Is it a manual thing, I mean, people doing it or a computer program — how does work?

JIM BRADY: It’s a computer program. In our case we have a profanity filter, which wasn’t working over the course of the last week; for anybody who saw the site, they would be clear it wasn’t working.

And one of the jobs that we had someone do in the office this week is, an interesting job spending the day trying to figure out all the words people might use when they were trying to post something profane.

So we actually spent the last couple of days trying to ratchet up our filtering system so that anybody who’s trying to post certain words just will get blocked from doing it.

And then one thing that we didn’t have in the blog that we closed down is we didn’t have any identifier or unique identifier, a registration name or an e-mail address where when you run into these kind of problems, you can block somebody from posting anything. You can just say that e-mail address isn’t going to be able to post on this site anymore. So without those controls we just weren’t able to keep up.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see happening, Ms. Jardin, in terms of those kinds of controls and filters for other sites?

XENI JARDIN: Well, I know that the weblog that I co-edit, Boing Boing, I we had to shut down a comment system because it wasn’t set up in a smart way. I think this really is a technology issue more than it is an issue of any one publication.

Definitely systems that require registration are helpful but really one smart thing is for newspapers to tap into the energy of their readership. If people are excited enough to congregate online and comment about your stuff, sometimes readers can be encouraged to kind of govern the comment section themselves.

Sites like Metafilter and Slash Dot, you’ll see some interesting kind of self-policing, self-organizing happening among the people who frequent those forums.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it, Ms. Jardin, is it different for a blog like yours, which is essentially created for the Web, as opposed to something like The Washington Post, which has a mainstream media traditional institution behind it? Does work differently?

XENI JARDIN: Well, I think it doesn’t work differently but I think maybe we expect it. We’re prepared for it. Anybody who’s participated in an online chat forum or discussions or use net, any place where people can go to express their opinion online, if they can do that anonymously, chances are some of that is going to get a little heated at one point or another.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Jim Brady, you said that this is an important way for you looking forward to use these — to use the Internet and we see stories daily about the problems that newspapers are having with circulation. So this approach through the Internet is something that is key to the future?

JIM BRADY: Absolutely. Interacting with the readers is something that’s been a goal of the site since I’ve been there the last year and, you know, as I said, we’ve planned a lot of launches in this space, but I think, you know, it’s adjustment from a paper obviously that’s been in the print form for a long time. The public nature of the comments I think is an adjustment. I mean, reporters are used to getting e-mail; they’re used to getting snail mail; they’re used to people writing letters to the editor about their work.

But in this case you’re seeing almost immediately in some cases hundreds of people posting publicly onto a Web site often being critical and in some cases being much worse than critical.

So I think there’s definitely an adjustment here but I think there’s buy-in from the paper across the board that interacting with readers is a good thing. Not only does help your journalism but it helps you find story ideas and tips sometimes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it possible, though, that others will look at what’s going on with you and say, hey, it’s just not worth it at this point, too much trouble?

JIM BRADY: I hope not. I mean, in our case, as I said, we weren’t staffed to handle the amount and the intensity of the feedback that we were getting. We didn’t have a system in place. In a lot of ways it was more our fault than anything else. But this is not a — our taking this blog down was not any kind of slap at any inactivity in the Web.

It was a step back until we could build a system that could better handle it but you’ll see in the next, you know, couple of months, you’ll see how committed the site is to interacting with its readers. We’re very confident of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Jim Brady and Xeni Jardin, thank you both very much.