September 1, 2009
These are parlous times in the news profession, print division. No one is sure where things are headed as newspaper proprietors work at fashioning a 21st century business model that will link news gathering and advocacy, advertising, circulation/readership, and the marvels of the World Wide Web to remake the profitable entrepreneurial approach that sustained the golden era of ink-on-paper journalism for most publishers over the last 100 years.
That is big-picture, large-bore stuff, and good luck to us all as we take things a step at a time.
The coming of electronic delivery of information generated by human beings who are on scene covering news events has made a muddle of many long-held assumptions about what a newspaper is all about.
Let's take the category of letters to the editor. Newspapers still print them, and most publishers insist that letters offering rebuttal opinion or controversial positions come with names that are printed with the letter.
Curiously, these same publishers have no problem with online readers – who get the newspaper's journalism at no charge – making snarly, snarky, anonymous ad hominem attacks on their newsroom employees.
I have known Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy and his work for more than 30 years. He is a wealth of sports information, a veteran observer of things on and off the playing fields, and he is opinionated, as a columnist should be. He can also be flip with his words and approach to a story in the news.
But no readers are confused about authorship when they click to his column on boston.com. His name and a cartoonish caricature (a curious rendering, in my opinion) run right with his articles.
Not so those who offer opinions in the "Comments' section that his paper makes room for underneath his columns.
Here is a reader who signs his name as "ilikebaseball" writing about a Shaughnessy column:
"How come you had the comments deleted after your last bashing of Ortiz, Dan? Because the truth hurts? REALLY HOPE YOU DO NOT CONSIDER YOURSELF A JOURNALIST. TIRED OF THE SUBJECTIVE, EMOTION DRIVEN GARBAGE AND HATE YOU SPEW. Nice swipe at Sox fans in this piece too. You really think you are oh sooooo much smarter than all of us fans. You prove time and time again that you need to find a new career."
Then comes "tennesseemoonshiner":
"Shaughnessy: 'You will believe what you want to believe.' I can't write what I believe Shaughnessy is because the webmaster keeps censoring it. But it has to do with the bodily orifice from which excrement flows."
Finally, this from "codyrules"
"Shaughnessy: 'You will believe what you want to believe.' You make it sound as if anyone who is interested in getting facts before passing judgment is a low IQ fan with an irrational need to believe. You are in fact a hack "journalist," who doesn't see the need, the responsibility, to check such incidentals as facts or lack of them before launching into a self-serving tirade. Talk about mailing it in. You are a disgrace to an already disgraced profession. You have zero credibility."
It's a shame that the Globe lets misanthropes like "ilikebaseball" and "tennessemoonshiner' and "codyrules' savage the name of a bylined employee while hiding behind anonymity.
The print Globe publishes 4-6 letters to the editor on average in each edition, and writers are asked for verification of their names (and their positions in life if that is seen to be relevant); online, there have been days when a Shaughnessy column has evoked 100 or more comments by 7 o'clock the morning of publication. To be fair, not every letter is a rant against the writer, and a few are deleted for crossing some sort of imaginary line. And, mirabile dictu, some readers take on the topic, not the man. Still, it would be impractical to insist that every file of comments under every story in every edition come to the computer screen with true names attached for verification and that Globe editors working the wee hours of the day do the checking before publication.
Bottom line is that there are two Globes: One honors civility by holding its critics accountable by name; the other is digital and free, holding its venom-spewing, saloon-level critics to no account. Until it can find a way to balance the ledger between the two on reader access to its properties, the Globe should do the honorable thing by its own family of journalists and close down the online comments sections under all opinion pieces.