New York Times Public Editor Scolded For Suggesting Websites Should Treat News Commenters Like Actual Human Beings

For some time now, the opinion du jour in “enlightened” media circles has been to treat the news comment section (aka the customers who visit your website daily and directly) as some kind of irredeemable leper colony. One that should be nuked from orbit before the infection spreads. As such, we’ve seen website after website proudly crow about how they’ve given up on allowing site comments because a handful of posters are obnoxious, hateful little shits and the social media age means more direct community interaction is passe.

These announcements usually come hand in hand with all manner of disingenuous platitudes from the editorial staff, like we killed comments because we wanted to “build relationships,” or we muzzled our entire user base because we just “really value conversation.” Usually, this is just code for websites that are too lazy and cheap to moderate, weed and cultivate their community garden, and find it convenient to argue that outsourcing discourse to the homogenized blather realm of Facebook is an improvement.

Since this trend began a few years back, you’ll occasionally see an editor stop and realize that these disregarded masses are, warts and all, the life blood of a community — and preventing them from publicly interacting on site is actually a step backwards. Case in point is new New York Times public editor Liz Spayd, who this week asked a bizarre and outlandish question: what if websites were to treat these people like actual human beings and the comment section as something worth saving? Says Spayd:

What The Times and most other newsrooms mostly do now is not so much listen to readers as watch and analyze them, like fish in a bowl. They view them in bulk, through statistics measuring how many millions of “unique” users clicked on content last month, or watched a video, or came to the site multiple times, or arrived through Facebook.

What would prove more fruitful is for newsrooms to treat their audience like people with crucial information to convey – preferences, habits and shifting ways of consuming information. What do they like about what we do and how we do it? What do they want done differently? What do they turn to other sites for?

This isn’t really complicated. Spayd refreshingly realizes that the rise of the comment troll is in many ways the fault of websites themselves. Writers and editors simply don’t want to cultivate real conversation, because it’s hard work and their current analytical tools can’t monetize discourse quality. Instead, websites have begun to approach the end user relationship like the owner of a prison colony who believes the entire sordid affair can only be improved by a good, industrialized delousing or the outsourcing to bigger, meaner prisons.

In reality studies have found that comment sections can be dramatically improved — simply by treating site visitors well and by having somebody at the website make a basic effort at fundamental human-to-human communication:

One surprisingly easy thing they found that brought civil, relevant comments: the presence of a recognized reporter wading into the comments.

Seventy different political posts were randomly either left to their own wild devices, engaged by an unidentified staffer from the station, or engaged by a prominent political reporter. When the reporter showed up, “incivility decreased by 17 percent and people were 15 percent more likely to use evidence in their comments on the subject matter,” according to the study.

With the daily struggle to produce more and more content in a sea of more and more competitors, it’s simply easier to pretend that the comment section doesn’t matter.

But what’s being pushed as enlightened evolution by editors is just willful obliviousness driven by lazy thinkers, incapable of embracing anything that can’t be clearly, graphically monetized. It’s thinking built at media empires with the multi-million dollar backing of giant conglomerates, where actual human interaction is already more easily obscured by the daily shuffle of incessant bi-coastal conference calls. Since the comment section is perhaps the most valuable source of corrections, it’s also a wonderful way for such giant companies to avoid advertising that their writers may have made a mistake.

I’ve been at the heart of one smaller, community-driven website since 1999 ( and a writer here at Techdirt for several years, so it’s perhaps more obvious to me that scrappier upstarts don’t have the luxury of telling their entire community to piss off to Twitter if they want to leave public feedback.

Not too surprisingly, Spayd’s idea was received poorly by some in the news media who believe public interaction with readership on site is either beneath them or wholly irrelevant in the social media era. MIT Technology Review Editor Jason Pontin was quick to declare that Spayd’s comments reflected a “disastrous first outing” as the Times’ new public editor, going further to suggest that anybody who gives a damn about public comments has the “wrong priorities”:


Slate was also quick to deride Spayd’s outlandish treatise (which again, is to simply give a damn about your on-site community) as the “phony populism” and “willfully naive” rhetoric of a bygone era:

After writing that the paper is trying to move in the direction of more comments, she adds that the speed at which it has done so has been hindered by “other newsroom priorities.” I’m not sure what those other priorities are, but to spend your first column focusing on something like a comments section is another sign that Spayd’s priorities are bizarre and even-this will sting-out of touch.

Yes, how gauche. As we all know by now, you don’t build community by treating site visitors well, you build community by telling them all to fuck off to Facebook, where their infectious, intellectual detritus can be more easily ignored.

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Documentary About Freeing Happy Birthday From Copyfraud Comes Out The Day After Happy Birthday Officially Declared Public Domain

You may recall that last fall, a judge ruled that Warner/Chappell did not hold the copyright on the song “Happy Birthday,” as the company had alleged for decades (and which it used to take in approximately $2 million in licenses per year). Of course, while many in the press immediately claimed the song was in the public domain, we noted that was not what the court actually said, and the song had actually become something of an orphan work, and theoretically, someone else could claim the copyright. Indeed, the heirs of Mildred and Patty Hill (who are often cited as the creators of the song) stepped up to claim the copyright. In December, all the parties agreed to settle the case with Warner agreeing to pay $14 million to go to some of the people who had falsely licensed the song. But, part of the settlement agreement was a stipulation that the song, finally, officially be declared in the public domain.

Last Thursday, the judge, George King, granted the settlement and officially declared Happy Birthday in the public domain:

If you can’t read that, it says:

The Court hereby declares that, as of the Final Settlement Date, the Song entitled Happy Birthday to You! will be in the public domain.

So now, after all this, it’s finally officially in the public domain.

And, right on cue, Jenn Nelson, the filmmaker who started to make a documentary about the song and eventually decided to challenge the copyright status on it, has put out a great 15-minute documentary about the fight to free Happy Birthday from the bogus copyright claims of Warner/Chappell. Watch it here:

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FBI: Clinton ‘Should Have Known’ Private Email Server ‘No Way To Handle Classified Info’, But No Charges Will Be Sought

FBI Director James Comey just held a press conference detailing the FBI’s findings during its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. The findings are irrefutably ugly.

The FBI, “painstakingly” reassembling emails scattered to the digital wind by device abandonment, multiple server upgrades, lawyers’ brute-force attempts to separate personal emails from work-related emails, and a general lack of professionalism across the board, found that Clinton’s private email server contained :

  • 110 classified emails in 52 chains
  • 8 top secret emails
  • 36 “secret” emails
  • 8 “confidential” emails

All were clearly designated as such at the time sent or received. Additionally, another 2,000 emails had been “up-classified” to confidential after being sent or received.

It also found several work-related emails Clinton’s staff did not include with the 30,000 handed over to the State Department for release to FOIA requesters.

There was no built-in archival function in Clinton’s private server setup, a basic feature considered essential by professionals. This slowed the FBI’s investigation as it was forced to reconstruct emails from the digital detritus left behind by “routine purging” and device deactivation.

As noted above, Clinton’s lawyers made several efforts to delete “personal” emails, but they did so by using searches and header info, rather than actually reading the emails’ content. The FBI did read the content of what it could recover, finding it likely that some work-related emails vanished during these purges. It also discovered Clinton hired some smart lawyers: “lawyers cleaned their devices in such a way as to preclude complete forensic recovery.”

But at the end of it all, the FBI found Clinton’s use of private email server to be severely stupid, rather than criminal. Comey says the FBI found no signs of “intentional misconduct” by lawyers during personal email deletions or routine purges. Likewise, there was “no clear evidence of intentional misconduct by staffers,” but Clinton’s emails were “clearly mishandled.”

The FBI’s final conclusion is damning, but only in terms of harsh words, not actual punishment. Clinton and her staff “knew or should have known” a private email server was “no way to properly handle classified email” — especially when housed on private server with “no full-time staff” or anything approaching the level of service one would equate with email services like Gmail. Comey also noted that Clinton used her personal domain “extensively” outside of the US, needlessly exposing sensitive information in the “presence of hostile actors.”

James Comey also took a little time to bash her agency, stating that the FBI found the “security culture” of the State Department to be “lacking.”

But for anyone who was hoping this would result in criminal charges, the FBI has nothing in the way of good news. Comey says it’s not the FBI’s call to pursue prosecution, but stated that “no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case” against Clinton, despite her repeated careless handling of sensitive info via her barely-competent private email service.

Final call, according to Comey: Clinton, staffers may be subject to security or administrative sanctions, but “no [criminal] charges are appropriate” in this case.

Clinton walks. The FBI has determined there was no malice in her actions. Being stupid and dishonest is no crime, at least not as far as the FBI is willing to push it. The DOJ has the final call, but it’s highly unlikely it will override the FBI’s recommendation. The decision is one that people in Clinton’s position are far more likely to receive. Others lower on the political ladder — or, god forbid, just average voting Americans — are far less likely to receive this much deference from the nation’s top prosecutors.

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DailyDirt: Solving Mysteries Of The Universe…

The vast blackness of space might not look like much to the naked eye, but the origins of all life have come from distant stars. As Carl Sagan put it, we are all “star stuff” — we’re made of atoms that could have only been born in intense supernovas. It may appear futile to try to decipher what happened billions of years ago, but astronomers can literally look back in time and see the formation of the universe. Here are just a few cool things astronomers have discovered lately.

After you’ve finished checking out those links, take a look at our Daily Deals for cool gadgets and other awesome stuff.

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