There's been a bit of discussion recently among journalism blogs about the recent decision by the Winnipeg Free Press (Canada) to limit comments to paying subscribers. Allowing open comment sections should be a serious decision for news sites - there are legal implications with respect to copyright and libel, and considerations about whether open comments fit in with the purpose and focus of the news organization and/or the sensibilities of its readers.
But once an organization commits to allowing open commenting, it's best to remain truly open rather than putting limits on access. Too heavy a hand in limiting open discussion can harm a news organization's image of neutrality and balance; in their willingness to consider and credit alternative views. And the explanation given for this decision doesn't help -
“We want to keep the party-crashers out so those who’ve paid for the right to be part of the online conversation can do so without being turned off by yahoos spewing vile and bile,” writes (Winnipeg Free Press) editor Paul Samyn.“The bulk of the ugliness that lands from time to time on our website comes from those abusing the ‘free’ in Free Press to engage in gutter talk or worse on our no-cost forum."In later comments, Samyn indicated surprise at the reaction to the move - at the amount of reaction (on track to be the most heavily-commented post in the paper's history), and at reader's reactions. Samyn said he expected a strong negative reaction (but did he really expect 60% to oppose the move, versus 25% who approved). But reading between the lines there's the arrogance and self-delusion endemic in old-line news organization - casually brushing aside concerns about shuttering an open forum (that's for journalists and not for the yahoos of the general public), and trying to find redemption in the claims from a few readers that having a cleaner, more filtered comments section (that reflected and reinforced their own opinions) might encourage them to look at comments more frequently.
In addition, there's the problem that their filtering (by paid subscription in one form or another) doesn't necessarily reflect their expressed concerns over civility. It might reflect a desire to limit opposing viewpoints, if they're assuming (or admitting) that their news is targeted to the like-minded among the public, but few papers will publicly admit to doing that.
And while there's significant differences in terms of the traditions of letters to the editor and comments (mainly that the editors select what letters to publish) here's the key question they should have asked themselves - would they also require people submitting letters to the editor to be paid subscribers?
Source - Winnipeg Free Press: Only Subscribers Allowed to Post Comments Starting Next Week, JimRomanesko.com blog