Ever since I moved to the Nation’s Capital area, I’ve read the Washington Post. Recently, though, I’ve come this close to giving it up altogether.
The Post has a long reputation for quality reporting. It’s coverage of national and international issues has included breaking stories about the Watergate scandal, among others. Moreover, it is essentially my local paper, being a good source for restaurant and movie reviews. Plus, my kids enjoy the Sunday comics.
I’ve continued to read the “paper” as it has transitioned to the internet. But lately, I’ve been reading it less and less. It’s not because the reporting is worse or that using it online is a problem.
It’s because of the comments.
According to the Pew Research Center, the “vast majority” of Americans today views news in some kind of digital format. And anyone who has read journalism or quasi-news online recently knows this problem of hateful, vitriolic, anonymous comments. A recent article (from the Post, ironically) succinctly describes how journalism organizations nationwide have struggled with what to do about it. “The wide-open, anonymous comment was the source of a huge amount of complaints from every one of our papers,” the article quotes a senior newspaper editor.
According to the article, newspapers are concerned that if they turn off the comments they will lose readers and therefore lose advertising revenues. But what if there were another system.
To me, the obvious reason hateful online comments have proliferated is because they are free.
Basic economics has demonstrated over and over again how a free resource will be abused, especially if the users are anonymous. Land will be destroyed, air will be polluted, water supplies will be strained, highways overcrowded. By supplying the ability to provide unlimited and anonymous comments, newspapers are essentially subsidizing hate speech.
So I think it’s time to kill the subsidies and make commenters pay a reasonable fee. Set a flat rate for a fixed amount of text, let’s say 99 cents for 300 characters. They can pay through their subscription account or some third party system, such as PayPal.
It will accomplish two goals at once: raise revenue for the journalists and cut down on the trolls. I think it could work, and I’d love to see someone test the theory.
Some might argue that such a system stifles free speech. But that argument fails for several reasons.
First, there already exist restrictions on speech. The famous example is that you don’t have a right to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. More than that, all of our existing means of communication–telephone, the internet, the mail–come with a fee of some sort. Anything outside of face-to-face conversation, you have to pay.
Furthermore, this would by no means put a stop to online comments. As has been demonstrated repeatedly by patrons in karaoke bars and the TV shows like American Idol, there is a nearly unlimited willingness of people to spend time and money to make fools of themselves in public.
Finally, as the Supreme Court recently reminded us, money does not prevent free speech. Rather, money is speech.
[Updated 5/13/2014 with reference to the Pew Research Center.]