Jul 6, 2023 - Economy

MediaNews Group ends online comments for all newspapers

Animated illustration of a pixelated newspaper icon being obscured by a falling metal garage door.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

MediaNews Group, the local newspaper company owned by Alden Global Capital, has shut down all of its comment sections as of July 1st, due to difficulties in moderating them, executives told Axios.

Why it matters: Comments were a staple of early internet blogging, but professional news websites have reeled them in to prevent spam, abuse and harassment.

Catch up quick: MediaNews Group, also known as Digital First Media, is home to hundreds of weekly newspapers and dozens of daily newspapers, including major regional outlets such as The Denver Post and Boston Herald.

  • Like many large newspaper chains, it’s faced layoffs and cost-cutting measures in recent years.
  • The company said last year it would stop endorsing national and statewide political candidates in an effort to curb political misinformation and polarization. In doing so, the company noted that "the public discourse has become increasingly acrimonious."

Details: In a statement, MediaNews Group Executive Editor Frank Pine said all MediaNews Group publications removed the commenting widgets from their sites on July 1st because “open comments can be difficult to moderate, and the discussion can sometimes be overwhelmed by spam, vicious political fueding, or even worse, hate speech.”

  • While Pine acknowledged that many readers enjoy engaging with comments, he said that they can often become polarizing.
  • "We take our Fourth Estate responsibility to facilitate public discourse very seriously and we believe increasing polarization is not good for our democracy. In that respect, this decision is in line with our previous move away from national political endorsements," he said.
  • In addition, he said internal testing showed that pages without the commenting widgets "load faster, which results in a better user experience, higher visibility in search and improved performance of all other elements on the page."

Between the lines: Last week, all of the papers and their websites within MediaNews Group’s portfolio posted a notice about removing comments to readers, and encouraged them to engage on social media, email or to submit letters to editors instead.

The big picture: Many news outlets have removed comments in recent years as online discourse becomes more polarizing and harder to police.

  • Gannett, one of the largest national newspaper chains, ended comments on most of its news articles earlier this year citing difficulties in its ability to allocate enough staffers to adequately moderate them.
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer removed comments in 2021 arguing, "The comments on far too many Inquirer.com stories are toxic, and have gotten worse as mounting extremism and election denialism pollute our national discourse. Out staff and readers deserve better."

What to watch: Debates over free speech online have triggered efforts to possibly roll back laws that shield internet platforms, including news websites, from being legally liable for the content posted on its sites by third parties.

  • While there's no indication that those rules are changing anytime soon, pulling back comments allows news companies to avoid the messy headaches that come with moderating content onine at scale.
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