Nasty Comment, That Will Cost 99 Cents

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.

Art by me.

Art by me.

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.]

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5 comments

  1. Marc Delisle

    I believe that charging a fee, regardless of the amount, will only prevent poor people from expressing their views. It would make more sense to implement strict rules against comments displaying hate, violent or vulgar language. The whole society may benefit from thoughtful and well written comments.

    • Matthew Taylor

      I appreciate your comment Marc.

      But poor people are already prevented from expressing their views, thanks to the Supreme Court decisions in McCutcheon v. FEC and Citizens United v. FEC. I think that not having access to your elected officials is much more damaging to democracy than not being able to post a comment on a newspaper website, but hey! the Supreme Court says that it’s okay!

      Also, I’m all in favor of setting rules against hateful conduct, but the rules don’t seem to be working very well from what I’m seeing. So I’m suggesting an alternative.

  2. Jann @ AustinDetails.me

    Hey Matthew, interesting idea. I’m a WaPo fan–I was the Sunday magazine art director for three years back in the day, when it was a thick, sought-after and well-read weekly print offering. And my copy of the Post’s “Nixon Resigns” issue is in my collection of treasures. Sadly, today’s Post isn’t what it was then (hurry up, Bezos, bring on your brilliance!) but the comments are one of my favorite parts of reading it online from Austin.

    I like your thoughtful, well-written approach to this, but I’d hate to see that limited–for example, I wouldn’t pay to comment, would you? (And I’m no troll.) Wouldn’t a pay-to-comment system encourage people to try to buy influence, just like it does on Capitol Hill? My system is to skirt the haters with a wide berth. Can’t stop ’em from hating and trolling, but they can be blocked (like we can do on Twitter)–and the Post can put some copy editors on that task. Letter to Editor? Tweet to section editors? Let the WaPo know we are offended by offensive comments. It’s the Post’s job to halt it. Ultimately, such offensiveness reflects on the Post.

    • Matthew Taylor

      Hi Jann,

      Cool that you worked on the WaPo mag. I still read it each week, in print. I thought I’d go into journalism after college but the jobs just weren’t there (even in 1990) and it’s so much worse now.

      I think I would pay to comment if I felt I had something worthwhile to say, and I felt that the editors valued my input. (I’ve bought songs from iTunes with less deliberation than I put into some of my online comments.) And that’s exactly the point–to place a barrier in front of someone’s knee-jerk reaction to spew bitter comments on the Web. If they don’t want to pay, they don’t comment and it’s one less jerky comment cluttering the story. If they do anyway, the newspaper gets the revenue.

      I agree that current policy does reflect (badly) on the Post. I also think that there is not magic bullet, but that each publication will have to implement a solution that works best for them. This article about “pay stairs” rather than a pay wall is another interesting idea: https://medium.com/best-thing-i-found-online-today/paystairs-3349e164c578

      As always, thanks for your thoughtful comments. ;)

  3. Pingback: Maybe I Am Smarter Than NPR | The Seeker

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