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City Pages’ deep dive into the comment cesspool

A relatively new open-door policy for comments has the n-word all over a City Pages blog post.
By David Brauer

All of you crying racism, SHUT YOUR F—ING MOUTHS. Just shut the f–k up. None of us care, or want to hear it anymore. These little N—ERS need to be lynched. Period. Racism is the only logical answer to a community of blacks that feel they can get away with anything. And don’t bullshit me that “ohh white suburban kids would do the same things.” I guess you’ve never been to a suburban black community. It’s not the same, and crime rates ARE higher. Blacks represent less than 15% of the population but commit nearly 50% of the violent and property crime. Call me a racist, it’s a moniker I’m proud of.

Tuesday morning, City Pages editor Kevin Hoffman was on Twitter when he noticed people linking to a YouTube video of eight men knocking people off bikes, chasing kids, and punching people. He alerted one of his bloggers, Hart Van Denburg, who whipped off an item about it, with the embedded video.

The perps were black, probably Somali. At 2:34 p.m., the comments started rolling in. By the next morning, MinnPost blogger Max Sparber tweeted that there were 9 25 comments with the n-word and 25 explicitly racist/anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim ones, amid a rip-roaring debate about CP’s sensationalism.

Welcome, folks, to another episode of the Comment Cesspool.

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At a time when the Strib has stepped up comment moderation, CP has gone the other way. Hoffman says that approximately a year ago, corporate owner Village Voice Media decreed that comments would be posted automatically, rather than filtered by staff.

Critics see CP’s let-alone attitude as an especially noxious example of a “made-you-look” web strategy that emphasizes cheap web hits rather than original reporting, context and curation good journalism should provide.

While it might seem excruciatingly obvious that posting video of wilding black men would provoke less-than-reasoned discussion, the n-fest apparently snuck up on Hoffman. He says he and Van Denberg had gone home by the time the epithets rolled in, after 5 p.m. When Hoffman saw the Twitter criticism the next morning, he instructed staffer Ward Rubrecht to pull the worst comments.

But given VVM’s open-door policy, you can’t bar the door to hate: even after the initial expungement, the comment at the top of this piece was posted at 11:50 a.m. Wednesday. (The dashes are mine.)

Hoffman says Internet discussions happen in real time, and he and VVM agree that’s how CP comments should flow. The editor says this is only the second time the policy has proved problematic on the news side; the first involved the murder of a child.

“Like it or not, when they say speech wants to be free, it’s not just pretty speech,” Hoffman says.

Still, some readers expect sites with editors to, well, edit. That’s a big reason the Strib started moderating its comments — because knuckleheads were damaging the brand. The Minneapolis paper turned off comments in its stories on the video.

Hoffman says he would not turn off CP’s comment thread. One of the virtues: the potential for tips when folks were trying to identify the perps, and their victims.

The Pioneer Press took middling route between the Strib and CP. Its discussion (hosted by third-party provider Topix) contains no n-words — likely the result of a server-side filter. Still, there are plenty of “send ‘em back” and a little “string ‘em up.” Folks with opinions: Is that a huge improvement over CP’s threads?

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City Pages is an alt-weekly, and its brand is different.

Hoffman noted that his audience is younger — 18 to 34, or perhaps 44. “Maybe a little more used to the Internet; they don’t need things sanitized,” he said, calling the controversy “a tempest in a teapot; if you’re using the Internet, this is not something you haven’t seen before.”

I asked the editor there was a bottom-line benefit to hosting such garbage.

He said no — that the bulk of the traffic came from the original item, not the comments themselves. But he does acknowledge a potential cost; Sparber, who co-writes MinnPost’s Daily Glean, threatened to link to CP less. If other aggregators follow, there’s a remote chance traffic would dip. Then again, there are probably many more sites anxious to link to the hot stuff.

I asked Hoffman if anything would change as a result of the incident.

He acknowledged there are “certain basic norms,” adding, “Our policy in the past, when we had pre-approved comments, was not to publish anything with racial or homophobic slurs, or threats of violence, or that’s potentially libelous. … In the future, we’ll be more sensitive, now that we’ve seen it happen.”

Since corporate policy likely won’t change, that means after-the-fact removal as soon as a 15-person staff can get to it. Hoffman encourages folks to email the paper if they see something that should be removed.