Read time: 2.5 minutes
While at a professional meeting years ago, I attended a panel discussion of newspaper types on the topic of policing public comment in online editions.
The panelists agreed the traditional ways of handling Letters to the Editor or Op-Ed submissions were not practical because of the volume coming from the public. Who was going to read and edit all of them? How were they to verify the identities of authors? How were personal disputes going to be resolved? What about profanity and vulgarism; were the rules different in the online universe?
Panelists cited what the big city dailies like The New York Times and The Washington Post were doing — creating ombudspersons, public editors, and reader advocates to referee but acknowledged that deep pockets made a difference in answering these questions. I believe those in attendance left, as I did, with a mix of confidence and consternation.
No one I talked to or heard at that conference was forecasting the cratering of newspapers. No one was projecting that social media news sites would come to resemble LESS the stolid and staid “Old Grey Lady” and MORE the feculent streets of the Wild West. That is what has happened (Don’t read the comments? For news sites, it might be worth the effort. - Poynter).
At one time we trusted the newspaper's gatekeepers, as fallible as they were, to be judicious in what they included in their pages (both newsprint and digital). They valued the readers' time, more importantly, the marketplace where ideas were weighed, and important choices made —whether about a school bond or a president.
As Walter Lippmann wrote in 1920 in Liberty and the News, “(W)hen a people can longer confidently repair ‘to the best fountains for information,’ then anyone’s guess and anyone’s rumor, each man’s hope and each man’s whim becomes the basis of government” (libertynews00lippuoft.pdf (archive.org)).
Now that everyone with internet access can offer an opinion — informed or not, and too often it is the former — there’s less value and purpose in entering the marketplace. I believe this is crippling our country and leaving too many people, who probably would never have written a letter to the editor back in the day, feeling like their rage and ridicule is fomenting change when actually it is, in the words of the Bard, "sound and fury signifying nothing."