When newspapers have no comment | Pittsburgh City Paper

When newspapers have no comment

At the Post-Gazette, the comments section sometimes gets TOO active

Here's the thing about online comments: Some newspapers don't get as many as they'd like. Others, like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, sometimes get more than they bargained for.

Since enabling comments site-wide this past spring, the P-G gets a lot more comments than your humble City Paper (not to mention its crosstown rival, the Tribune-Review). But as many readers have noticed, a notable chunk of those comments appear to be written by, well, total assholes. To the point that the paper has taken to preemptively banning comments on the stories most likely to spawn ugly debates.

I'm not going to provide links, because the worst offenders have often been removed. And at this point in human history, I don't think anyone needs evidence of the existence of trolls. But suffice it to say that after some bitter experiences, says executive editor David Shribman, "We have disabled comments from stories on topics that we know within 40 seconds will degenerate into ugliness."

Mary Leonard, the paper's deputy managing editor and overseer of its digital media platform, says there's a roster of topics on which commenting is preemptively disabled. "We routinely disable comments on all stories about rape, most stories about violent crime, generally obituaries, and always [convicted child molester Jerry] Sandusky and Jordan Miles" -- the Homewood teen who has sued the city over allegations of police brutality.

The P-G was wary of reader comments from the outset. Although comments have long been enabled for blogs, it wasn't until this year that the paper began permitting comments on its regular content. Shribman confirms he and other executives were concerned about the ugliness so often found in other newspaper comments sections.

"Journalism is no longer a one-way street where we give our pronouncements to a grateful audience," he says. "Engagement is an important part of this new world, and we want to embrace that. But one of things I insist we [maintain] is a sense of civility and comity. With the exception of commentary on the Pirates infield and the Steelers secondary, we’d just as soon as not have a food fight."