The decision by the Albany Times Union to shut down all its citizen blogs is regrettable – and totally understandable.
Trying to clean up, let alone keep up with, citizen blogs is an impossible task. A publisher who relies on the honor system to maintain civil online discourse will sooner or later be disappointed, and possibly sued.
When I was running The Saratogian newsroom, the advent of the internet brought exciting opportunities to broaden the newspaper’s role as a forum for community comments, discussion and information. It also brought headaches, giving voice to vile people and assorted wackadoodles.
We tried to pre-empt problems back then by blocking all comments on stories, such as tragic accidents, that, to our amazement, triggered hateful remarks. People easily circumvented procedures designed to prevent anonymous comments on stories or blogs.
The legal advice at the time was to avoid liability by not editing online comments — either use them as submitted or reject them in their entirety. That advice was later modified; editing online submissions need not increase the publisher’s liability.
In announcing the impending removal of all its community blogs, TU Editor Casey Seiler cited a normally innocuous blogger who last spring “spread the looniest conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19.” Alerted by a reader, the TU determined the blogger had failed to follow its hands-off honor system of maintaining civil discourse, and shut him down.
More recent was the brouhaha over a post on a TU-hosted blog that U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik and others interpreted as meanly mocking her for being childless. I saw it differently. I took the post as a tasteless and lame attempt at satire, criticizing Stefanik for not supporting access to affordable birth control and Planned Parenthood services. Either way, the TU removed the blog.
Next thing we know, all the TU-hosted citizen blogs – well over 50, by my rough count, on a wide range of topics – are being shut down at the end of this week.
That’s a shame. I share Seiler’s vision of blogs serving as what he calls the newspaper’s “digital town square.” They enhance the publication’s offerings beyond that paid staff can provide. Besides, most bloggers (at least on apolitical topics) have no problem with civility.
By the way, this isn’t censorship. The First Amendment prevents government from curtailing free speech and a free press. The owners of publishing platforms are not obliged to let anyone say or write whatever they wish. They do, however, have an ethical, and possibly legal, responsibility to manage that access. Unfortunately, it is too overwhelming and impractical for a publisher to monitor, never mind edit, all citizen submissions. Sad when the wackadoodles win.