A while back I criticised the increase in Big Media closing their sites to readers’ comments.
On September 14, Damian Thompson — who worked at The Telegraph for many years and has been at The Spectator for the last few — posted an article ‘Comment threads are closing, thankfully – but the underpants brigade have won’.
It’s one of the laziest pieces of journalism I have read this year. He gives no indication as to why he is saying that comments are closing. No what, where or when, either: standard journalistic questions every article should answer.
I learned about that in primary school English class.
Yes, every year our books included a series of journalism lessons with in-class assignments where we had to write a short news, features or sports story. We had to compose them the way they would appear in a newspaper. The teacher would come around to grade them and the best were read out in class.
Not only did we learn something useful; we also began reading newspapers more frequently.
But I digress.
Several years ago, Thompson, a practising Catholic, got into a Telegraph comments row with a group of Catholic traditionalists. One weekend in May, he deleted all their comments from one of his blog posts. I remember it well, because I saw it happen in real time. They soon turned to WordPress, where they have been maintaining their sites since 2009. Sorry, I cannot remember their names, but maybe one of them will come on here to comment!
Bearing that in mind, it’s interesting that Thompson writes this (emphases mine):
For five years I was editor of Telegraph Blogs. Every day, from the moment we switched on our computers, we had to live with the drone of the ‘underpants brigade’, as one colleague called them.
To the casual reader, these Y-front warriors were obvious fruitcakes. But they had a sharp eye for the fragility of the journalistic ego.
Yes, they certainly did, Damian. And you lacked the professionalism to buck up and allow them to voice their opinions.
After he deleted the Catholic traditionalists’ posts, I never read another article by Thompson again until this particular one.
But enough about Damian Thompson and his paltry journalism. What did the readers say in response?
First, he received over 1,480 comments. Well played, readers!
Secondly, one reader offered an eloquent defence of comments:
Since the Telegraph turned off comments, I’ve largely stopped reading it. Funnily enough, Damian, I used to comment on your rather excitable pieces in that paper. I’m mostly on the Guardian now, but I don’t click on articles which don’t allow comments for the same reason I won’t on the Telegraph: most of the articles present a very slanted view of the world, with claims which don’t stand up – and are not above trotting out downright lies …
Comment threads aren’t welcomed by professional writers because they remove their privileged position: embarrassingly, they allow scrutiny of articles to be placed in situ. This doesn’t really affect careful writers who produce well-researched and analytical articles, at worst they’ll get a tide of childish bile from people unwilling to listen to their viewpoint; but for the many charlatans who’ve based their careers on spewing (previously unchallenged) polemic, there’s an almost inevitable payback below every trashy article they produce: comment after comment pulling apart their tawdry arguments. Consequently, comments are the best thing which has ever happened to news media.
Finally, another reader said that any media outlet that drops comments will lose readers:
Like many I stopped paying a sub to the Telegraph and now hardly visit even for the free articles. Other places will get the traffic of the excluded.
That’s definitely true. I, too, stopped reading The Telegraph after they dropped comments. I read a lot more Guardian articles now.
Someone else agreed:
Me too! I didn’t contribute much in the comment sections, but they were the main reason I used and subscribed to the DT. I no longer subscribe and it isn’t even in my Favourites folder any longer. I stopped visiting the site altogether.
… it was the comments that entertained, not the articles!
Yes, I used to read the comments for useful responses and links rebutting or adding more to the articles.
Ironically, that’s exactly what happened with Damian Thompson’s article. A reader sent in a blog link discussing the Catholic Herald‘s suppression of comments.
The Catholic Herald article attempts to strike a regretful tone in announcing its new policy and ultimately sends readers to Facebook. What about readers who don’t want to be on Facebook yet would like to contribute?
… we are a small team. Our three full-time editorial staff (including me) work round the clock with a little army of part-timers to produce an up-to-the-minute news site and a weekly magazine (we made the change in 2014, after 127 years as a broadsheet).
Inevitably, time is scarce. And that is why we’ve decided to close comments on our articles (in common with many other Catholic websites).
The decision has been a difficult one. Readers have, over the years, offered insightful, funny and heartfelt responses to our articles. But moderating comments is a time-consuming daily task. We believe that time could be better spent on offering readers more news and analysis.
This does not mean the end of dialogue with our readers. We know that this bond is vital. When major issues arise we will post items that allow for comments. Meanwhile, our Facebook page is always open for discussions.
The Catholic site discussing this new policy has this:
Shame. The Catholic Herald had done so well for so long. It is so sad that it has finally capitulated to various pressures at such a crucial time in the Church’s life.
Whatever financial rewards come their way, I’m sure it won’t be through their print edition since whenever I go into a Church there are always a good few copies to spare.
Certain people, however, will be happy about this decision. This decision is a slap in the face to their readership. I won’t be reading it anymore. What a self-defeating decision. Their writers – talented as some of them are – are not the main attraction of blogs. The main attraction of blogs is that others can contribute to the issue being dealt with. I would have thought that to those interested in gaining an audience in the Catholic world today that this was self-evident.
But you know, what do I know?
Pray for blogs, pray for bloggers and pray for journalists and the Catholic Press. I guess you could say we’re all up against it in one way or another.
Every person hungry for the truth, whether it be religious or secular, laments every occasion when yet another major media site closes comments.
Now imagine if The Spectator had closed comments on Damian Thompson’s article. Nearly everyone reading it would have wondered what he was talking about. He had no news at all to support his headline. We would have walked away none the wiser.
However, that one comment linking to the Catholic Herald policy adopted in August helped flesh out the matter.
That is, if that’s what Thompson was referring to.