Can the comments; laud the letters. The Atlantic makes the switch

Among the words of wisdom dispensed by Michelle Obama, speaking in Vancouver last week, were “don’t read the comments”. Michelle and I are in agreement on this – it’s great advice for our times.

Many news organizations have a similar view of the dubious value of comments.

The Atlantic magazine has just announced they’re abolishing the comments sections of their online stories. They’re returning to a letters format. I concur.

can the comments

Said the magazine’s editor in chief: “We are choosing now to elevate respectful, intelligent discourse and argument. We want smart and critical readers to have a more visible role on our site, and we’re looking forward to hearing from you, and publishing you.”

Said a recent story about the move in Nieman Labs, staff from the print and digital divisions will chose letters “with the most interesting and challenging ideas.”

Yes! This makes sense for all kinds of reasons – chiefly because people tend to think through what they say in a letter. Comments sections can quickly turn into a morass of off-the-cuff remarks, personal insults, invective and worse.

It’s harder to be anonymous in letters than it is in comments – especially as The Atlantic will require writers’ names.

Surprisingly, a few brave news sites still host comments sections. In a laudable stab at fairness The New York Times went to the trouble of having a tool designed  to filter comments. A media site in Norway asked commenters to fill out a form, proving they’d read the story in question, before commenting.

In an ideal world the comments forum is great. It’s free-speech-in-action. Reporters (in this ideal world) would encourage and be in charge of comments on their stories – clarifying, replying, engaging. A nice idea, but one that turns out to be hugely impractical because of the time and energy required.

After working with comments for years, The Atlantic determined an online letters section would be a positive step. It will match its successful counterpart called The Conversation in the print edition.

(For an example of what’s great about The Conversation check out this reader’s response a few days ago to a story about whether dogs feel guilt.)

Bravo to The Atlantic. Monitoring, adapting, taking positive steps, owning it.

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