Earlier this year, the Inquirer and Daily News both went behind paywalls, meaning (in theory, at least) that only people who paid for access to the sites would be able to comment on stories posted there. But many of the papers’ most juicy, gossipy and sensational pieces—i.e., the ones most likely to invite comment—are still put up for free at the umbrella Philly.com site. And the comments section on Philly.com remains the Wild West.
The reason is obvious: People can comment anonymously. Anonymity breeds contempt. It subverts the social compact that keeps polite society reasonably so: We know who you are, and you will be held accountable for your actions. But at the dawn of the World Wide Web, the hierarchy of the newspaper industry was comprised of old gray men out of their depth when it came to “the Internets,” making it ridiculously easy for techie whiz kids to convince them of the necessity for anonymity in comments. “Early on, the Internet felt very much like a fraternity house,” says McBride. “Twenty-something guys were running it, and they told us that this was the way we had to do it.”
The enormity of this mistake cannot be overstated. Anonymity has proven to be soundly counterproductive to journalism’s prime directive: to shine disinfecting sunlight upon the dirty deeds that lurk in society’s darker corners. It has allowed lunatics to float about in the clouds of cyberspace like phantoms, lashing out like spoiled (and often racist) children without a trace of accountability.
CABS SHOULDN’T PICK UP BLACK PEOPLE — Philly54321
Unlike the bar one must get over to have a letter to the editor published in the print versions of the Inquirer and Daily News—which require a name, an address, and a phone number that’s called to verify the author’s identity—all it takes to start commenting on Philly.com is a screen name and a working email address. This relatively lax system, combined with the sheer volume of comments on Philly.com—upwards of 50,000 a month—has resulted in a perfect storm of poisonous exegesis that has:
- Driven out any and all reasonable people who might have something constructive to add to the public dialogue the spaces were designed to foster. Want proof? Scroll down to the bottom of pretty much any article on Philly.com. The Algonquin Round Table this ain’t.
- Demonstrably damaged the brand of Philly.com/Inquirer/Daily News as the region’s most trusted source of news and information. A scientific study recently published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication found that these toxic opinions can negatively impact readers’ capacity to process the information in the actual article being commented on.
- Unwittingly turned over the biggest soapbox in the Philadelphia online media market—90 million page views a month—to a small band of all-purpose h aters, bigots and trolls who routinely inject into the public sphere the type of shocking invective long banished from mass media in this country.
Here’s the rub: It didn’t have to be like this.
If any of the various owners of Philly.com since its inception in 1995 had allocated the necessary resources (such as, oh, enough people to monitor the thing), the wild and woolly comments section could have been tamed a long time ago. But in 2009, just around the time it was becoming apparent that the comments section was fast turning into an idiocracy, the Great Recession was gaining steam. The newspaper industry was unraveling; at the Inquirer and Daily News, corporate energy and resources were focused on a desperate search for new revenue sources, at the same time that staffs were being reduced through layoffs. Not only was nobody watching the store—there was no one to watch the store.
“The simple fact is, user comments weren’t the biggest challenge we faced,” says Ryan Davis, who served as Philly.com’s president from October 2009 to October 2010. “Fixing the comments wasn’t going to suddenly make us more money that we could use to support more journalism. Fixing the comments wasn’t suddenly going to get us more advertising. Fixing the comments wasn’t going to create a new business model that would show us the path forward. So it was not at the top of the priority list. But at the same time, every time I came to the site, I would log on and see something that bothered me. Every time, without fail.”