"The real news from this piece is that comments sections aren't completely useless."
Andrew Beaujon, The Poynter Institute
Careful readers of The Tribune's Sunday Opinion section may have noticed a new feature.
Called "The Commentariat," it was rolled out a few weeks ago with what the retailers call a soft open. Which means we just started without calling any attention to it. Which gives you a chance to work out the bugs, or pretend it never happened, before cutting the ribbon.
"The Commentariat" replaces an older feature which also just sort of appeared one day called "Clippings." That was a review of some of the previous week's editorials.
In an online context, "Clippings" would be known as an ICYMI (in case you missed it) offering. But the ethos of online argues against printing anything twice, as everything printed once lives on, unabbreviated, on our website. No need to take up limited newsprint by inking it out again.
"The Commentariat," then, owes its existence to the brave new world of online newspapering in two ways. One, it replaces something that is just too, too old school. Two, it rounds up or "curates," as we now like to say things that were created in the infinite universe of online commentary and puts them before you, saving you the trouble of having to wade through so much hay to find the needles.
Which means that one of us spends some time each week slogging through the comments appended to many Tribune editorials, columns and news articles, seeking out some witty, short, on-topic, short, original and short comments to go into this feature.
Careful readers of the Sunday Opinion section may also know that I'm the one who, back in September, approvingly quoted a respected journalist/academic as saying that the whole concept of online comments is the biggest mistake newspapers have made in half a century of big mistakes.
Such comments, though, have become a permanent part of a great many websites, not just those run by general interest newspapers. (The epigram that opens this column is from a recent write-up of an online discussion over at The Columbia Journalism Review as to whether newspapers should put their online content behind paywalls. The discussion attracted some of the biggest thinkers in the game and, while there's been no resolution of the wider point, the ideas that need to be discussed are out there.)
And I must admit that the overall quality of the comments is at least a little bit improved since The Tribune started having its commenters register and adopt a single nom de 'net for their contributions. Our site, and others, have found that many of the owners of those identities have some pride of authorship and don't want even their virtual selves to develop reputations as ugly, flaming trolls.
Racist, bigoted, nasty and overly personal attacks are still out there, though, particularly following articles dealing with immigration or, last week, former Utah legislator Carl Wimmer.
I've never been much of a fan of Wimmer's. But the glee that is being expressed in the wake of his recent travails announcing he had an exciting new job with the Nevada Republican Party, only to find out he didn't is enough to make you feel sorry for anyone. Shots at his appearance, his career, wishing a human being ill, things we'd never say in even the most strongly worded editorial or allow in a Public Forum letter. Or in "The Commentariat."
So keep those comments coming. Submit a good one, and we may put it in print.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, can't understand why anybody would offer their comments for free. Even at facebook.com/stateofthedebate. Or on Twitter @debatestate.