The general public has had the ability to join the conversation at newspapers (and magazines) for years through letters to the editor even if the online community believes this to be a new phenomenon, exclusive to themselves. To their credit, editors publish letters that present both supporting and contrary points of view — just like a normal conversation would.
The process of having a letter to the editor printed includes an editorial review which selects the letters that present an intelligent argument or thought in a productive way, and may also involve the refinement of the letter in a way that includes both the author of the letter and the editor of the newspaper. There are many logical and obvious reasons for this approach including the fact that there is a finite amount of space on the printed page.
Comment moderation on a forum, blog or podcast site isn’t even a distant cousin of the newspaper approach. There is a lot of pressure in the online community to not moderate comments in favour of letting people share their uncensored, unrefined and kneejerk thoughts. Ms. Blatchford correctly points out that this typically leads to a ‘brief, ungrammatical shouting match‘.
In the race to be heard online, the favoured approach has become being the contributor that ‘yells’ the loudest — intelligible or not. Website owners would never dare to suggest working with the commenter to make their comments more productive. It’s socially unacceptable and has become an unwritten yet well known rule. Even if that approach were acceptable, most site owners don’t have the time to take that upon themselves, much less do it without consulting with the contributor.
I don’t expect that there will ever be a happy medium to this conundrum and that’s why many journalists won’t take to blogging even if their employer allows and encourages it. It may also be the reason behind the increasing number of newcomer-bloggers that don’t allow comments or provide contact information on their sites. Commenters no longer need the cooperation of the site owner since they can post their own points or counter points on their own sites.
The challenge for newspapers is to find a way to evolve their approach to conversation management from the printed page to the online world — becoming more responsive and yet still working within the ever evolving and increasingly bootstrapped revenue models.