Should newspaper sites permit user comments?

A couple of articles this week in Gawker and TechDirt (with the latter following the former’s lead) ask whether newspaper Web sites should allow users to comment.

Gawker says newspapers should stop “slumming as blogs and disallow comments” because they rarely generate intelligent discussion. This is in part because users often don’t give a lot of thought to the comments they post — not the kind of thought they’d give to a printable letter to the editor for the same newspaper.

TechDirt’s article makes a good point: “Just tossing up comments and thinking you’ve created a community is a mistake.” That’s why my whipping-boy local newspaper has done with its Web 2.0 endeavors. They put up the sites and expect people to generate the content simply because there is a Web site in need of it, like gas filling a vacuum. While that works with physics, it doesn’t work in online communities if you want them to draw quality content.

Solution? Smarter comments, TechDirt says. No comments, Gawker says. Me? I’m on the side of Gawker when it comes to newspaper articles online. There’s no need for an immediate, unintelligent response to the article. Let the readers write a considered letter to the editor (hard copy or electronic, writer’s choice). When it comes to Web 2.0 communities, whether started by a newspaper or not, make sure they have a purpose. Digg is a popularity contest. Del.icio.us has a niche: Web bookmarks, not just random comments. Give them a “game” to play or a mission and people will take part.

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