Manchester news website defends decision that has angered readers, saying it is necessary to protect its journalists and promote more civilised debate
Revamping a news website is a pretty delicate balancing act (and one the Guardian knows all too well). How do you make sure you’re at the cutting edge of digital innovation and design without alienating existing readers – most of whom were happy enough with the old site?
The Manchester Evening News is the latest regional paper to have provoked a backlash from loyal readers over the imminent launch of a new-look website that it promises will be will be ‘cleaner and less cluttered’. Interesting promises of ‘dedicated pages for every single community in Manchester’ seem to have got lost however amid the opening of a worm-can debate about the right to anonymity online.
Most ire seems to be directed at the decision of the MEN – which was sold to Trinity Mirror by Guardian Media Group three years ago – to make it compulsory for readers to register with the site using their Facebook accounts, meaning that people without a verified Facebook identity will be unable to post comments.
Readers voiced their anger on the site, while they could still do so anonymously. ‘In-Me-Alone-I-Trust’ said:
ABSOLUTE SHOCKER limiting comments to Facebook users only!!! What an own goal by the M.E.N. They are not going to attract new users with this decision only lose many who currently participate with the site … There are many valid reasons why people are wise not to use Facebook and security IS one of them with viruses, trojans and spam ever increasing via that medium, another genuine concern is SAFETY, particularly for females. Incidentally, as for people being forced to use their real names well what a load of nonsense that is. Pretty much most of the people i know that use Facebook use an alias.
I have made many comments over the years, some of which have been supported by other readers and some of which have provoked good arguments. Now, you are telling me I will not be able to carry on since, like many men and women of a certain age, I do not have a “Facebook” account. Goodbye – it was nice knowing you. There are other newspaper sites where there are no restrictions.
Flames were fanned even more when the MEN’s former online editor Sarah Hartley – a regular Northerner contributor – accused the paper’s management of not taking Manchester’s unique readership into account, after they justified the move by effectively saying: ‘well, it worked in Birmingham’.
Writing for Prolific North, Hartley said:
Manchester isn’t Birmingham. The Manchester online users are not merely commenters with a passing interest, they are a community which came together around the city’s football and other passions. As with so many things, Manchester does things differently.
When, the then Manchester Online team, introduced commenting to the MEN back in the early 2000s, some of those same people were there then. So it seems that, in some cases they have been there, and not just commenting but participating, ever since. I don’t know the situation in Birmingham, but I can guess it would be very different – Manchester was unique as a GMG website in having a pre-moderated stance.
Not something I’d advocate (a necessity of the newspaper management) but it did mean that the relationship between the online journalists and those wanting to post comments back then was much closer – we knew the regulars, they were part of our working day reading all the submissions. Sometimes infuriating, often fun, never dull.
David Higgerson, Trinity Mirror’s digital publishing director, was moved to defend the decision on his personal blog, saying that doing away with anonymous comments was necessary to protect its journalists and promote more civilised debate.
Over the last 12 months, I have become increasingly concerned about the tone of essentially anonymous comments on our websites. We employ a lot of very talented journalists to write stories, and increasingly building digital communities around their work is second nature, regardless of whether we have comments or not.
So, having employed those journalists to produce high-quality content, we find ourselves using it online and then, increasingly often, finding comment threads taking an unsavoury tone which in turn leads to abuse of the journalists who have written the stories or of users.
A responsibility to respect others within that community, which includes the journalists. We could just remove any comment which criticises us, but that would defeat the purpose of open discussion on our website. I’d much rather we encouraged people to log in via Facebook and post comments they aren’t ashamed of being associated with under their real name.
The Guardian – MEN’s former owner – is no stranger to vociferous opposition to online evolution. The comment platform’s move to ‘nested’ comments late last year provoked a largely negative response, including this choice example that former Guardian developer Martin Belam quotes in a blog putting the changes in context:
This format is not merely ‘pants’ – this is pure, organically grown, ‘M&S tramp pants’, dipped lovingly in rancid urine, and smeared with faeces spattered forth from the rectum of someone suffering from dysentery.
So, what do you think of the MEN’s decision? Is the backlash just another example of a small minority shouting the loudest, or is the farrago part of a wider threat to online freedom and the right to anonymity? And what changes would you like to see from your regional paper’s website?
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