Over the last couple of months, we’ve been working to improve our coverage and provide a more interesting and more useful experience for readers. We’ve brought on staff and with the extra capacity we are trying to cover more subjects in more depth. We want to keep Via Meadia a personal blog with a personal take on important events; WRM works with all the new staff on their posts and on their beats to make sure that as we grow we stay focused on the vision and the ideas that are central to our work.One of the reasons for expanding the staff was to make the blog a more interactive experience. Communication with readers matters. Longtime readers remember that we used to have comments on the blog. The experience was rewarding in many ways, but there were problems. There are lots of trolls out there in cyberspace and as our audience grew and the volume of comments grew the effort to keep our comment pages spam free, civil and sane sucked up more and more time. In the end, we were faced with the choice of cutting back on posts or closing down comments.One reason we were dissatisfied with our comment pages was that we want them to be more than just the digital equivalent of a letters to the editor page. Internet publishing, we believe, should do more than cut paper and distribution costs. The web brings—or should bring—writers and readers together. Not every comment needs (or frankly deserves) a response from the writers, but if a web publication isn’t promoting lively and fruitful interaction between the “creators” and “consumers” of the content, then much of the potential for a new kind of public discourse that the internet theoretically offers is being lost.Since we didn’t have the ability to foster the kind of interaction and community building we wanted, we decided to take a step back. Last summer we closed our comment pages and began to think strategically about how to lay the foundations for a stronger and more useful community experience.The more we thought about it, the more we came to believe that web publication is about creating communities around issues and ideas that engage people. Readers and writers have a chance to connect more directly on the web, but a publication isn’t just about promoting reader/writer interaction. It is also about allowing readers to engage with one another around the content of a site and for readers to play a larger and more active role in developing the site.With so many large media corporations struggling to survive in a web-dominated publishing world, there’s a lot of focus on finding new business models today. That conversation has a tendency to get away from the promise at the core of web publishing: the promise of deepening democracy by enabling more people to enter and help shape the public conversation. The world of “old media” got above itself; the economics of national publishing and distribution created a world of elite, privileged voices who were powerful by position. If you had a column at Newsweek or Time, or you had access to their pages, you were a force in the land.Many of the people in that elite did and do conscientiously work to serve the public interest. Nevertheless, the elite nature of the profession and the top down system of control that put corporate gatekeepers in charge of determining which voices mattered tended to produce a skewed discourse that uncritically reflected the social interests and ideological biases of the dominant American elites. The national media tended to be a kind of mouthpiece for the conventional wisdom of the professional upper middle class.These days, that is no longer enough. The internet is one of a number of disruptive technological developments that are driving a series of major upheavals in American life. The comfortable assumptions of the 20th century progressive national elite no longer work, and a whole range of American institutions stand in need of deep, transformational reform.These reforms are likely to disrupt the comfortable lives and the social assumptions of the upper middle class. Doctors, professors, top journalists, lawyers, bankers, foundation staff, civil servants: these professions face a loss of authority, security and privilege, and everything from the way these professionals are trained to the shape of the institutions in which they work is up for grabs. The conversation about these reforms must be broader and more representative than the old media universe is ready to support.In our view, the exciting thing about a web publication is that the internet offers an opportunity to create a new and more interactive kind of journalism that can speed the arrival of a new and more democratic kind of society. Corporate gatekeepers have less ability to police discourse on the internet; writers and readers can develop new forms of collaboration. More voices can be heard and more perspectives can be brought to bear on the vital issues of the day.As we see it, the road to a successful business model involves figuring out how to create a publication that lives up to the cultural and political potential of the internet. It involves forging new kinds of links between staff and readers, and bringing the power and the passion of the readership to bear on the major issues of our time.Finding and helping to develop communities of passionate readers is especially important for a site like this one, which hopes to change the world and not just to reflect on it. We believe that America needs to retool itself for a new era of domestic progress and international leadership, and that the happiness and safety of the whole world as well as of the American people hinges in large part on our success. We think that our site can play a role in that retooling: we can alert people to the need for it, report important developments that affect it, stimulate thinking about it, and encourage people throughout the country to get involved in the American renewal.Those goals can’t be reached unless we help create communities of people who are passionate about ideas, issues and the future of the country and the world, and help those communities discover and develop their powers of imagination and action. We know, because even without a formal comments section we continue to receive email from readers, that communities of engaged readers and thinkers exist around many of the issues and ideas that we follow. We want those readers to engage with each other and with our staff, and we think that these communities can become a force for change in the world.Over time we will be rolling out a series of measures to help our site become a platform for new forms of engagement. Effective today, as a first, small step in that direction, we are turning comments back on for new posts, effective with this one. There are some differences in the new system:
- Comments can be voted up or down, and reader rankings will determine the prominence of each comment. This is an important tool, and we hope the community will take advantage of it. Hopefully it will allow the best comments to rise to the surface and allow the community to shape the discussion.
- We will not be moderating comments as they go up. We are still a very lean organization, and need to be very careful with the way we apportion our time. We therefore need the community to stand up and police itself. Upvotes and downvotes should help, but please also take note of the “flag comment as inappropriate” feature. It’s located in the upper-right hand part of each comment, under the downward-facing triangle. Flagging a comment as inappropriate immediately sends staff an email to investigate the comment. Please don’t abuse this, but also don’t hesitate to point out if something is offensive.
- On a related note, if you want to tell us about technical issues or if you have suggestions as to how to improve the site, please don’t use the comments for that. Shoot us an email instead, using the Contact Via Meadia button above the comment stream.
- Longtime readers will remember the Grandmother Mead test to determine what comments are considered appropriate. The Grandmother Mead test is a simple one: if in either language or tone a comment would not have been permitted at WRM’s grandmother’s Sunday dinner table, it won’t be permitted on the site. Vulgar, hectoring and uncivil comments will be barred. No one is allowed to monopolize the conversation or ramble on interminably. One can disagree, civilly, with views put forward by other people but may not disparage motives or make ad hominem attacks. We are not interested in hosting racist remarks, incitements to violence or religious insults. This is in no way a First Amendment or freedom of speech issue. The internet is full of sites where people can be as ugly as they want; ours is not one of those sites. Readers who violate the test can expect to be barred and posts that don’t comply with our standards will be removed.
- Finally, a request: please consider using your real name as you post, and additionally consider posting a photo. We understand that some people prefer to be anonymous, but we’d like to foster a more intimate community feel here, and we’d like everyone to be on relatively familiar terms. This is, of course, only a request. We will not make this a requirement. But we certainly would appreciate it. It will make for a better experience overall.
The new comment pages will, we hope, provide a richer and more rewarding environment than the old 1.0 version. Via Meadia staff, including WRM, will monitor comments regularly and engage in exchanges and discussion with readers when appropriate.We are also adding an email address where readers can suggest ideas for posts. These will be considered in our regular staff meetings and these posts will be marked “RGP” (reader generated post) when they appear.Everyone at Via Meadia will be involved in responding to reader comments, and staff interventions on the comment pages will be signed. Damir Marusic is our resident tech wizard and the associate publisher of The American Interest; expect to hear from him on matters related to technology and society. Daniel Kennelly, senior managing editor of The American Interest, is closely involved with the editing process here at Via Meadia and will jump in on comment threads from time to time. Noelle Daly, associate editor at AI, has a deep interest in religion, family life and social policy. Andy Iacobucci, AI’s web editor, is more involved in our domestic policy coverage. Among the writing staff, Peter Mellgard works on Asia and the Middle East. Peter Blair covers health care and retirement. Jamie Horgan covers the environment and is leading our telework coverage. Masha Rifkin is looking at generational and social issues and Jeremy Stern is the point person for our coverage of state politics.Over the next couple of weeks we will be telling you more about the staff and their beats, but as of today you can expect to encounter VM staff in the new comments section.As we go forward we will be looking for more ways to bring readers together and to provide a richer and more useful experience on the site. Big things are happening in the United States and the world today. Working together, our staff and our readers can have a significant impact on the changes that matter.