After I agreed to be photographed for my senior portrait in a chocolate brown leisure suit, a decision I regret to this day, I learned not to be a slave to fashionable trends. What everyone is doing one day may someday look as bad as that satin shirt I wore with what I recall were sepia-toned scenes from Italian river towns.
The newspaper industry has worn its share of leisure suits as it struggles to reinvent itself. There was the “mojo,” or mobile journalist, who instead of looking into where government was wasting time and money was instead supposed to visit neighborhood coffee shops to talk to “real people about what they cared about.” Then there was the Florida newspaper that started a website devoted to writing snarky news for millennials. And we all have been victimized by the click bait phenomenon. I’m proud to say at The Columbian we have mostly avoided those here today, gone tomorrow fashion statements.
Story comments have been another one of those fashionable trends. They were started in the early days of online news with the noble idea of creating reader engagement and encouraging debate on the issues laid out in stories. Done right, they could give ordinary citizens a chance to stand at the microphone alongside elected officials, bureaucrats and the usual suspects.
My memory is The Columbian started by offering discussion forums, where participants could sound off on various topics, before we started allowing comments on the bottom of individual stories. The discussion forums became a regular hangout for a group of anonymous commenters. Sometimes people offered a fresh take or an amusing angle, but too often comments were racist, misogynistic or just plain hurtful. I wasn’t sorry when they went away.
Story comments have followed the same unfortunate arc. Not only are some of the comments toxic, we’ve noticed a steady decline both in the volume of comments and the number of commenters on our website. It’s not unique to The Columbian. I think that is why many news websites have dumped them. OregonLive, The Oregonian’s online forum, dropped story comments a while ago. I’ve noticed KGW-TV and other broadcasters have done away with them, too.