Corresponding with the Houston Chronicle

I have 23 primary destinations on the Internet. The Houston Chronicle blogs page is one of them, thanks to Longhorn beat writer Joe Duarte’s UT sports blog. He’s a friend, and it’s a fine blog. Sometimes, I check out the other blogs, and a few days ago I read a Chonicle Reader’s blog on music.

It wasn’t especially notable, and I’ll only link to it so I don’t have to rehash the discussion in the comments section. As you’ll see, a reader is reprimanded for an analytical response to the blog post. Why? Because the reader didn’t discuss what the blogger wanted discussed.

And I quote: “Try to remember this blog is about music, not politics. I just don’t want the discussion devolving into something completely off topic. Thanks. – Jeff”

This particularly entry isn’t about music, it’s about a kid who has decided to home school so that he may focus on his Guitar Hero career. Maybe it’s about video games. Maybe it’s about education. It’s not about music.

Anyway, I was disturbed by the blogger’s backlash and his attempt to moderate the reactions his readers had to the blog post. I told him as much, and he responded:

Jeff,

I hate to break it to you, but this blog post was never about music. It was about a kid who decided to quit attending a public school so that he could concentrate on his video gaming career.
You muddled the situation when you turned an innocuous, legitimate comment into a battleground. Trying to manipulate the reactions of your audience to a story is ill advised. Trying to limit the discussion on a story is downright creepy.

Thanks. – Ryan

Um, thanks, Ryan, but I just kinda thought it was funny and I’m limiting discussion because I don’t want this turning into a political discussion. Sorry but, my blog, my rules. – Jeff

The “my blog, my rules” remark really bothered me, and I wrote e-mails to the editor and, apparently, Dwight Silverman, the blog editor. The letter explained my discomfort thusly:

As I’m sure you know, even your Reader Bloggers are representing the Chronicle. While the intent of hosting such blogs is admirable, you need to make sure they’re aware of the responsibilities that come with being offered such a forum.

Jeff needs to understand that this is the Chronicle’s blog. Then, it’s the readers’ blog. And then, it is his blog. Writing a blog does not necessarily make one the all-powerful arbiter of your corner of the blogosphere. When you’re affiliated with a newspaper, you have a responsibility to the publication. When that paper is a cornerstone of the community, you have a responsibility to your readers. Someone needs to take Balke aside and-to use a friend’s favorite figure of speech-tell him how the cow eats the cabbage.

Silverman responded.

Hi, Ryan, thanks for your note.

Actually, our reader bloggers are completely responsible for what happens on their blogs. Yes, it’s on our site, and as such we expect them to stand by our terms of service, which you can read at:

http://www.chron.com/terms.html

In terms of how they moderate comments, it’s completely up to them. We ask them to be fair, civil and to encourage robust discussion, but it’s pretty much their blogs, and their rules. Balke’s framing of it is correct. If he wants to limit the direction a discussion runs, that’s completely within his right, so long as he sticks to our TOS.

Note the disclaimer at the top of each reader blog:

>> This blogger is a reader offering his own perspective on a subject that interests him. The posts and opinions are his own and are not edited by the Chronicle. He is solely responsible for the content of this blog. <<

The best way to think of it: We’re a hosting service. We provide the platform, they provide the content.

Hope that helps.

Still dissatisfied, I responded. Hints of condescension may have slipped into the e-mail, but at this point, it was only fair.

Mr. Silverman,

Thanks for composing a lengthy reply. I still find it troublesome that bloggers associated with the Chronicle are free to limit and moderate, in this manner, the reactions to their writing. Bloggers under the Chronicle umbrella should be held to a higher standard than Joe Blow Blogga.
But we’re still feeling our way around this crazy blogosphere, and we’ll learn exactly how it fits into our newspapers and other branches of mainstream media later.
I urge you/the paper to rethink your/its position.

Thank you,

Ryan Killian

And now I’ve gotten his reply, to which I won’t respond. Rather, I’ll air it all out and give others a chance to chime in.

Actually, I’m a big fan of comment moderation. We also encourage our staff bloggers to do what’s necessary to provide a quality discussion, and that also involves keeping discussions on track.

There are several avenues of thought related to what makes a good comment discussion, ranging from no moderation to very heavy moderation, to no comments at all. There’s no one “right” way to do it. We choose to do it this way.

Sure, there are various ways to handle comments. For news stories, I’d be happy to see comments done away with. Blogs, though, derive a measure of their strength and identity from commenters. In the context of a newspaper, blogs should serve as a sounding board for staffers to bounce thoughts and ideas off readers. Weeding out offensive reactions is one thing. Controlling the responses and discussion is quite another.

To sat that bloggers are “completely responsible for what happens on their blogs” is a total cop-out. No shit, he’s responsible. That doesn’t give him the right to do as he pleases. I’m totally responsible for what I do every day, but that doesn’t mean I can barge into my neighbors’ homes and take what I please.

Bad example. But that’s kind of the point.

The blogger has the right/option/prerogative to steer and divert discussion in accordance with his whims because the Chronicle allows him to, even encourages it based on that last response from Silverman.

All this really demonstrates is that newspapers are completely lost in the blogosphere. Still. Trying to be as bloggy as an independent blog is a mistake. Being part of a newspaper is supposed to mean something. It should mean a different set of standards, and a dim view on… (I’m trying not to say censorship because I don’t want to appear melodramatic)… censorship.

Apparently, the Houston Chronicle doesn’t see it the same way. But it’s like I told Silverman. They should rethink their position.

I’m disgusted.

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Published in: on September 2, 2008 at 8:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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