Sun-Times turnoff: Keep your comments to yourself

Sun-Times signFor an outfit that loves to brag about being tech savvy and “digital first,” the Sun-Times always seems to take two steps back for every step forward.

Over the weekend came word of the latest retro move: Readers won’t be allowed to post comments online about stories in any Sun-Times Media Group publications until a new system is put in place at some unspecified point in the future.

What prompted the ban, according to a blog post by Sun-Times managing editor Craig Newman, was the belief that comment threads “too often turn into a morass of negativity, racism, hate speech and general trollish behaviors that detract from the content.” The goal, he said, should be to “foster a productive discussion rather than an embarrassing mishmash of fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing.”

It’s true that unmoderated comment boards — or those that don’t require verification (a Facebook account in the case of my blog) — leave themselves open to abuse. But a big-city daily’s digital news site that summarily shuts off dialogue with its readers strikes me as wrongheaded and backward-thinking to the extreme.

It’s not the first time the Sun-Times has turned a deaf ear to its readers. During my tenure there, editors bowed to the wishes of two notoriously thin-skinned columnists — Neil Steinberg and Jay Mariotti — and disabled the comment sections under their posts.

CST logoIn this case, I don’t understand why the Sun-Times couldn’t continue to run reader comments or have someone moderate them while working out its new system. “We’ll have more in the weeks to come on this development,” Newman wrote, offering no specific time frame.

“Approach this news with cautious optimism,” Chicagoist.com weekend editor Jon Graef advised. “Nobody likes trolls, but we’ll wait and see how the new commenting system the Sun-Times promises actually comes to fruition. Better yet, wait and see how discourse on the Sun-Times site actually changes for the better. It may not. The new boss, after all, is often the same as the old boss.”

I agree with Huffington Post blogger Kyle Hillman, who criticized the Sun-Times in an exchange with his Twitter followers: “You can’t be an online media service and then shut off commenting because some people are mean,” Hillman tweeted. “I think it comes with the territory of being an online media service. Don’t like the underbelly, monitor it, but can’t give up. . . . Yes, nothing better than a news site that reverts to the golden age of ‘I write’ ‘you don’t respond.’ ”

Sunday night update: Jim Kirk, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Sun-Times, provided the following response: “We are committed to an open dialogue with our readers. We are researching a number of options that allow for the exchange of opinions and ideas. Our goal is to develop one that treats everyone fairly. We believe a new system will encourage even more readers to engage with us. We are asking our readers for patience during this process.”

Here is the complete text of Newman’s message:

To our readers,

Starting this weekend, the Chicago Sun-Times and the other titles in the Sun-Times Media group will temporarily cease to run comments with our articles.

The world of Internet commenting offers a marvelous opportunity for discussion and the exchange of ideas. But as anyone who has ever ventured into a comment thread can attest, these forums too often turn into a morass of negativity, racism, hate speech and general trollish behaviors that detract from the content.

In fact, the general tone and demeanor is one of the chief criticisms we hear in regard to the usability and quality of our websites and articles. Not only have we heard your criticisms, but we often find ourselves as frustrated as our readers are with the tone and quality of commentary on our pages.

To that end, we are working on development of a new commenting system we hope will not only allow for free discussion, but encourage increased quality of the commentary and help us better police the worst elements of these threads. We’ll have more in the weeks to come on this development. In the meantime, we encourage you to connect with us on Facebook and Twitter to offer your thoughts, feedback and suggestions. This is your site and your voice is an important part of how we work as a community to better serve Chicago.

Again, we are not doing away with comments. But we do want to take some time and work on the qualitative aspect of how they are handled and how we can foster a productive discussion rather than an embarrassing mishmash of fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing.

Thank you for your patience – and stay in touch (@suntimes and TheChicagoSunTimes on Facebook).