As expected, a big subject today at the Religion Newswriters Association convention is how print journalists can adapt to a world in which an increasing fraction of our audience (including, obviously, anyone who is reading this post) is reading us on the web. A panel of journalists -- Cathy Grossman of USA Today, Sam Hodges of the Dallas Morning News, and David Waters of WashingtonPost.com, spoke about their different approaches to this problem -- Grossman has successfully persuaded her paper to publish a religion page on its web site, Hodges participates in that paper's group blog about religion, and Waters, the former religion writer for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, is the editor and producer of On Faith, which is a web collaboration between the Washington Post and Newsweek.
For me, one of the most interesting subjects that came up was that of comments. Grossman was a strong advocate of enabling comments on stories and blogs, because, she said, it keeps readers present longer, and thereby persuades editors, and advertisers, that your beat is worthy of support.
But Waters noted that comments about religion are often ugly -- something I've observed here in my short time blogging. Here's what he said:
"Even Jerry Springer would be ashamed of the comments that we have on our site. They're that bad. Our philosophy is that the web is a platform that we are part of -- it's not ours....We have to abide by the rules of the Web, and the Web rules have always been very democratic, very open, and anonymity is fine...We will remove comments that go over the line, but some really awful comments go on line. I think eventually somebodyís going to get sued for a comment on some site, and weíre going to find out how the courts feel about this.''
Waters observed that at On Faith, they now talk about the three Ms -- Muslims, Mormons, and Moosekillers -- that are most likely to generate discussion, and vitriol. And, he made this observation about the impact of so-called metrics -- the endless measuring of web site traffic -- on journalism.
"When you are measuring and judging your content by clicks, it changes the way you think about what youíre offering. In some ways, thatís good, but itís also bad...The temptation is to have more posts about things that you know are going to click, which skews your news judgment.''
This is a subject that has received some attention elsewhere. GetReligion's Terry Mattingly weighed in earlier this summer, in a post cheekily titled, "How to avoid comments at GetReligion." An excerpt:
"Here at GetReligion, we are well aware that certain subjects cause more comments than others, including the work of trolls that like to set straw men on fire ó thus driving up comment-page statistics. Some cynical readers out there may even believe that this leads to lots and lots of GetReligion writing about clashes between lesbigay Episcopalians and conservative believers in California. If Mormons are involved, thatís even better...We also know how to avoid receiving comments on GetReligion posts and what we have learned, frankly, often makes us depressed. We realize that this is a comment on the nature of cyberspace communities, but all we have to do to avoid comments is write posts that: Praise the work of mainstream journalists. Negative writing inspires more debate; Focus on trends in Judaism, Islam or other faith groups that (in U.S. media) are not all of that powerful or viewed as out of the mainstream; Try to call attention to journalistic issues linked to foreign-news coverage about religion; Openly seek calm, informative feedback from readers about how to solve a journalistic puzzle that really needs to be solved. So if you want to throw cold water on a comments board, all you have do is write a post that praises a mainstream news organization for its insightful coverage of an important event on the other side of the world, while also asking for feedback about the issue thatís involved. Right, thatís the ticket."
In my own brief blogging career, Sarah Palin has been the gift that keeps on giving -- she has generated an astonishing number of comments, from both ends of the political, and theological, spectrum, many of them saturated with incredible hostility directed by the non-religious at the religious and vice versa. And, I must say, four groups in particular seem to draw a huge amount of venom on this blog: Catholics, Evangelicals, Muslims and Scientologists. I've junked all kinds of comments that I have found just beyond the pale -- those that use certain obscenities, of course, but also those in which readers allude to the sexual fantasies they have projected onto Sarah Palin, those in which people express pleasure at the crucifixion of Jesus, and so on. But that still leaves plenty of room for name-calling and a lot of mean-spiritedness, bias, and, arguably, hatred, that, at least to me, is unsettling.
A colleague of mine suggests that the web is self-correcting; one person posts a nasty comment about the Catholic Church, and another posts a comment rebutting the criticism. And there's an element of truth to that. But the tenor of that exchange is often ugly. I haven't yet figured out what it all means -- I don't know what relation the opinions expressed by commenters has to the opinions of our overall readership, and I don't know what fraction of non-commenters even bother reading the comments. A local Episcopal priest e-mailed me yesterday and told me that, upon reading the comments to an item I posted about the local mosque, "I encountered the blogging (comments) about it - reminding me once again why I don't blog or read much blogging. My hair gets on fire too fast - and it would even if I were bald."
Nonetheless, here at the Globe (and many other news organizations are doing the same) we are moving rapidly in the direction of enabling comments on more and more content, as one part of an effort to allow readers more ways to engage with our site. But as news organizations try to find their way in this brave new world, the whole question of what it means to host a conversation seems ripe for a lot more consideration.
As always, and fully aware of the irony here, I'd love to hear your thoughts, so comment away.
(Image above is of the Fremont Troll in Seattle.)