Thursday, June 3, 2010

Is Post Talk a bomb?

This is the first draft of a column published June 6, 2010 in the Post Register.

One of the more interesting but occasionally distasteful responsibilities I’ve taken on in the brave new world of online journalism is moderating the Post Register’s Post Talk feature.

For the uninitiated, Post Talk is the place on the Post Register’s web site where readers can comment on stories. Unlike most sites, we’ve had a longstanding policy of requiring participants to be registered users of the site (meaning they either are Post Register print subscribers who have requested a password at no additional charge, or they are online-only subscribers). We also require them to include their full name and city of residence on each post.

The theory behind this was to encourage a level of articulation and civility not found on sites that allow anonymous posting. Beyond that, I personally delete posts that don't meet my admittedly ambiguous standards, and I have sometimes outright banned some users, at least for a time.

Alas, this approach has not delivered the desired result. While we have many “lurkers” (people who read Post Talk but do not post themselves), there are fewer than a dozen active participants. While these “threads” (a series of posts about the same article) usually start on topic, they almost inevitably become a duel of verbal firebombs lobbed between individuals who align their opponents into particular political camps.

It gets pretty personal, with the use of well-worn but still-popular rhetorical devices, particularly hyperbole, cacophony (the use of harsh-sounding words) and, that old favorite, the ad hominen attack or, more simply, implied guilt by association.

To be honest, it’s discouraging. There is much heat and precious little light. If I were to apply the same standard that we have for printed letters to the editor, which is not a high threshold, I’d probably delete more than half the posts. But I try to give a little more leeway online, since readers and participants have to make a reasonable effort to get to that section of the web site.

Journalism web sites across the country are reconsidering the rules governing how people can post comments. Most still allow unmoderated and anonymous posting, but many are considering policies similar to ours. Unfortunately, if our experience is any indication, that won’t solve the problem.

The purpose in allowing readers to post comments is to encourage dialog and interactivity. Occasionally, we learn that a story or column contains a factual error or otherwise requires attention. Sometimes -- increasingly rarely, it seems -- someone posts an insightful or clever comment. Mostly, though, it’s pretty unenlightening stuff.

As it stands, Post Talk isn’t accomplishing our desired objective of facilitating meaningful interaction among readers and between readers and the newspaper. Instead of a forum, it seems we’ve created a gladiator ring.


  1. I can understand your being discouraged, Roger. But we live in a different time now. The thoughtful and nuanced discussions you could have had even 20 years ago are gone.

    That said, I think a ongoing public dialogue is important. Even if it devolves sometimes.


  2. Roger,

    I meant to write "2" years ago. Sorry.

    Thinking about it more...

    Things don't look good in general. Post Talk's challenges are symptomatic of something else going on. It has nothing to do with the idea of a local forum.

    I guess what I mean to say is, that Post Talk seems to reflect the same level of discourse found nationally but writ small.


  3. Very well said, Roger.

    The Post Register is an exceptionally fine newspaper for its size (around 30,000 daily). It's unfortunate that Post Talk has turned into a free-for-all brawl with occasional "gutter" talk. I don't profess to always being Mr. Nice Guy, but I do strive for a reasonable standard, good manners and civility.

    Perhaps most egregious of all are nasty remarks made against religion which, needless to say, is often ugly and in very bad taste.

    For now, I suggest that you keep Post Talk and re-evaluate it around two months from now. If we, your bloggers, have cleaned up our act, then continue with it. If not, then pull the plug!

    Bob Ziel, Rigby

  4. Others have told me that they have been able to post a comment so this is a test.

    Bruce Baxter

  5. Well stated, Roger.

    The Post Register, for a daily newspaper its size, is exceptional! Post Talk, unfortunately, is not so exceptional and the culpability lies with us, your bloggers.

    My biggest complaint is nasty posts from people who have an ax to grind with this religion or that religion.

    I suggest that you re-evaluate Post Talk in about two months from now. If we, your posters, have cleaned up our act, then keep it, otherwise I suggest that you pull the plug!

    Bob Ziel, Rigby

  6. The Colosseum held 50 thousand people and the gladiators were the major attraction. Perhaps the popularity of your website is the gloves-off approach with passionate feelings being expressed in the two most hotly debated topics, religion and politics.

    A local site, Eagle Rock Talks, went under when the two women running it decided to remove wholesale, any comments which didn't agree with their own. The other site, I.F. Today, doesn't garner near the traffic that this one now does.

    If it ain't broke, don't fix it.


  7. I appreciate having a more rough-and-tumble place to discuss local issues.

    If you are getting complaints about it, then I understand that you'd have to do something about it. But if you aren't, then why not just let it go?

  8. As a rational commenter on Post Talk that has been known to throw some bombs at other commenters that I have really learned to greatly dislike; I have mixed feelings. I can have a rational dialog with a rational poster of opposing views as long as they are rational. Once they start throwing out words like "libs" and "ilk", I lose it and respond in kind. Sad state of affairs, but seems to be a national mood among political junkies.

  9. Roger,

    I understand your frustration. I would like to stick to a "reasoned" debate on issues, but I do react strongly when insulted by some of the conservatives. Conservatives outnumber liberals about 2 to 1 among the regular commenters; probably reflecting the local political demographics.

    I am neutral regarding an opinion whether you should continue or discontinue Post Talk.

    Jim Sathe

  10. Roger,

    I view Post Talk as the cable tv of newspapers. It should be an area where discussions can be more open and heated. "Tell us how you relly feel" is the format. For some of us who do not make comments, this site is very informative, entertaining, and we have diversity. You need more than the 12 people though. How about a Post Talk without the need to ID everyone, but registration is still necessary. Roger, managing these 12 people is too much to expect from you. Jerry Hong

  11. Roger I really enjoy about 90 percent of the discussion on Post Talk, it is that 10 percent that simply adds nothing to the debate that bothers me. I can understand that not everyone agrees with me and I am grateful for that. We tend to get carried away when our dear long held values are challanged.

    I will admit that I have been guilty of the gladitorial spirit you speak of and I apologize for that. I like to hear the other side of every story and I can do that, like I said about 90% of the time.

    My advice would be to hire a permanent moderator; possible several who have different philosophical and political views so that Post Talk doesn't become one-sided.

  12. I used to comment more regularly on Post Talk and participated in one of the longest threads. It seems like there was more debate happening when the site first opened. Unfortunately I simply don't have the time to engage in long debates with people.

    I do get tired of the same 2 or 3 people that comment and I wish that they would self-edit and give other people a chance to comment. There are a couple of people (on both sides) with an axe to grind and they are relentless. It gets old.

    All that being said, I still find it entertaining and check in a couple times a day. I admit, I am a lurker.

    You may never solve the problem, but I don't think it is time to pull the plug...yet.

  13. Uh...I just read through the posts from the last couple of days. WOW, pretty harsh. Pull the plug. Civility is dead on that page.

  14. Anonymous,

    Yes, civility may be dead on Post Talk, but all of us (even those I disagree with) are civic-minded, and we care enough to participate in the Conversation. Unlike you.

    Pull the plug? Don't read it or engage in a debate, if your sensibilities are so offended.


  15. My guess is that once this column is published, the traffic on the board will substantially increase. There is no doubt an unintended "allure factor" to Roger's piece. So the question in my mind is, will the popularity or subscriptions to the electronic version of the Post Register increase? If so, will they cannibalize print subscriptions? But overall, what will be the impact on the "bottom line"?

  16. I participate infrequently these days unless I'm of a mood, and then of course my responses are similarly inclined. Today was such a day.

    Otherwise, it seems like free for all verbal fisticuffs and that doesn't appeal to me on a regular basis.

    I know other lurkers who go there once in awhile and then get turned off by the rancor and stop reading. Then, they check back later and remember why they stopped. ;-)

    I don't know what the answer would be. If it's creating an issue of someone having to spend time to moderate it, and you don't have the money/time/inclination to pay someone to do that moderating, then pull the plug.

    If it's not causing a problem, if you don't mind moderating the craziness, then keep it.

    And certainly, you should continue to publish articles about Post Talk and/or remind the general public that it's there, because the more people who venture into the realm of online discussions, the better the chance of having some really great dialogue! (Or, the better the chance that the whole thing will explode in a blaze of partisan glory!)

    -darlene rydalch

  17. This reminds me of the old "Trish & Holly" show that was on one of the local radio stations. What I see is that their are people that do want to talk about these issues, they want to be heard, yet at the same time they don't want to be told what they can and cannot say. I like post talk, I feel that it allows people to futher their arguments for or against. Take that away and it's like ignoring the elephant sitting in the room, let people address issues, it will correct it's self in the end.

  18. Keep it! Why do we have to have edited opinion? Why do we have to control all information? If you want controlled, manipulated, edited, boring, predictable debate, watch T.V. news.

    I never dreamed that I would blog. Less then a year ago, I would have mocked anyone who did. If post talk goes, I probably wouldn't blog again.

    I like the leeway on post talk, that is why you will never hear me complain about other posters, even when they "bash" my religion. (A lot of people take disagreeing as bashing) To them, I say toughen up, quit whining and get over it.

    If it doesn't get extremely personal(I use that term in the most liberal definition possible)let it be heard.

    One thing that all who post on post talk have in common, is a little arrogance. If we weren't why would we think anyone cared about our opinion? Even if no one does, we would still post, just for the chance that someone, at some time, might care to hear it. Anyone who doesn't believe that, is lying!

    Irven Hill

  19. Roger:

    I have thought about this fairly "long and hard" and discussed it today in person with one of the frequent contributors to post talk who is admittedly wiser than I - and proffer an opinion shared by him - that "post talk" should survive. Quite frankly with reference to the "alleged" personal attacks - while some are not deserved - some certainly are a fair rhetorical response to the opinion and views expressed. I too wish they would be the exception rather than the rule - but, hell, some of the "wit" AND "wisdom" expressed by those who post is priceless entertainment! I enjoy just reading the same and oftentimes laugh out loud (something shared by my friend who indicated that his wife wonders what on the computer could evoke such a reaction).

    Keep it Roger - expand it - make it the place to go for candid conversation about the state of affairs, world, national and local!

    Marc Weinpel, Idaho falls

  20. Roger,

    I guess I didn't understand that you were thinking about shutting down PostTalk. I didn't get that from your column.

    Irven, well said. Also, you're right: EVERYONE is entitled to my opinion.


  21. Roger, no advice, but this comment. Some people work awfully hard at trying to pick a fight, and insult rather than contribute to understanding. I wish there were a magic sieve to strain out the sincere comments from the ugly. I'm pretty hard to offend, and I'm willing to debate--love it in fact, but won't waste my time on rising to the bait of hatred. Good luck with your decision.
    Kathy Stanger