Gawker, what did you DO?

I love Gawker. I’ve read it for a few years, since my finals years at KU. It has a wonderful combination of snark and basic content curation. Two things made it stand out: its writers and its comment section. The latter, though, has been dropped on its head.

Gawker’s old-old comment section involved first-time posters replying to posts and/or adding comments to “try out.” Veteran commenters could approve those comments, giving new posters their feet through the door. Such veteran commenters would earn stars, and those stars gave them certain privileges, namely approving new commenters and promoting quality comments. As a poster, you could follow your favorite commenters and be followed in turn.

A few months ago, the old-old system was canned and replaced with a free-for-all. Commenters lost their stars and approval privileges. Spam could be dismissed in the comments section, and “featured” discussions with several replies were pulled out of the larger pile. A definite change of pace from the older system, but not bad.

Cue last week’s announcement by tech writer Adrian Chen, explaining the new commenting system, which involves a crazy, not-intuitive-at-all, carpal tunnel-inducing labyrinth. Instead of getting a clear view of all original threads in one vertical swoop, such threads are now available on a single-click basis, with their replies underneath them. Describing it only makes it sound more confusing, which is the point — it’s nearly incomprehensible and it’s only been in the past day or two that I finally figured it out. The response has been near-universally negative, with many veterans swearing that they’re leaving.

The question now is, what’s next? Is Gawker going to blink and go back to one of the older, more likeable commenting systems? Will it simply ride out the criticism until people get used to it? Will it admit that the change was an error? I really don’t know. I can’t see this new system working; major-traffic threads can easily accrue hundreds of comments, each one necessitating its own click. It’s a chore, it takes the fun out of posting, it’s hard to follow and it takes a four-step article to explain it.

Gawker has a talented stable of writers — I like reading Chen, Hamilton Nolan and Caity Weaver, and was sad to see Richard Lawson, Maureen O’Connor and Brian Moylan go — but its comments have always been a huge, huge draw for the site. I will definitely be paying attention in the next few months to see how the commenting system changes, if it does. It may prove to be a valuable lesson in terms of Web design, development and user relations.

Searching for Compassion in the Storm

If you haven’t already heard (or seen, or read), tornadoes in the southern U.S. killed at least 200 people last night and caused untold damage. The tornado season has gotten off to a devastating start in the midwest and in the south.

Being from Kansas, I’ve had tornado safety drilled into my mind practically from birth. A microburst hit my college town in March 2006, and I’ve spent untold numbers of spring and summer evenings hiding out in the basement watching or listening to the weather forecasts, occasionally peeking out the window to look at thunderstorms, hail and the eerie green stillness that only comes when something awful is about to happen. So, learning what’s happened in the south, I can commiserate with what the poor people down there are going through.

I’ve also read various stories about the storms on Gawker and The Huffington Post. While the stories themselves were sympathetic or at least innocuous, I was shocked and disgusted at the tone of many reader comments. Cracking jokes about God’s judgment and the Wizard of Oz, calling the storms retribution for “birtherism,” telling southerners they had no right to expect disaster aid — this is compassion? I by no means consider myself a conservative or a Tea Party member, but these tasteless comments from so-called enlightened liberals made me extraordinarily angry. Tornadoes do not care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, I promise.

As a Kansan, I’m used to people automatically assuming that I’m uneducated, live on a farm, hate gays and disbelieve evolution. Southerners are often the victims of stereotyping that’s at least that annoying if not worse. But to bring it out when people are dead and dying through no fault of their own, frankly, makes me sick.

What makes it more galling is that most of these people no doubt consider themselves to be open-minded, educated and tolerant. The same people who’d be offended if these comments were slung at gays, minorities or liberals in general have no qualms tossing them at people from an “inferior” region. (For the record, I abhor blanket statements about any demographic.) Many of them self-identify as being from parts of the U.S. like the northeast, which doesn’t typically have as many tornadoes as the midwest and south; do they know what it’s like to cower in your basement and have the very real fear that at any second, without warning, your home may be blown away?

And yes, many people in the south (and elsewhere) express a dislike for government handouts. Does this mean that in their hour of need, we should tell them, “No disaster relief for you”? No. Why? Because we’re supposed to be better than that. If we show a lack of compassion to those who lack it themselves, how are we better? How does that set an example and help people to change their minds? It doesn’t. In pointing out some southerners’ hypocrisy regarding federal assistance, some people have equally made hypocrites of themselves.

The Red Cross is accepting donations on behalf of people in the south affected by the storms. Please make a contribution.

This is news?

Full disclosure: For a long time, probably a good 5-6 years, CNN was “my” news station. I had always thought of its journalists as being fairly on-the-ball and objective (or at least, my version of objective, which may or may not be someone else’s). It was also the only news channel I could get in my dorm room, so it was convenient.

I haven’t regularly watched it in quite some time, mostly because I’ve been out of the country. At the time I last watched it, though, I had noticed a marked — and, to my mind, fairly rapid — descent into inanity.

Call me a snob, but I never did like the whole iReporter thing. Some people really appreciate “citizen journalism” and think it has value. To my mind, members of the general public, especially those on the scene of major events, can and should make great sources, and time and again their photos and video make compelling supplementary material. But that’s what it should be, in my opinion — supplementary. It should not replace the work of journalists — people not only trained in writing, editing and news-gathering, but also in ethics, judgment and legal theory. Likewise, Twitter trends can be a good starting point for news items, but they should not be the news item. Not only because Twitter can suffer from herd mentality, but also because a lot of what’s on it just isn’t true (according to Twitter, Johnny Depp died, like, four times last year).

So this trend toward relying on people-on-the-street for news items had already somewhat turned me off. Imagine my horror when I got on Gawker earlier today and saw this. Jon Stewart, bless him, ripped CNN a new one over some of its segments. They range from corny (Stream Team, which … I don’t even know) to borderline offensive (You Choose the News). The example of the latter segment involved an anchor (read: glorified infotainment card-reader) giving the audience three possible story topics. People would text to pick which one they wanted to know more about.

This concept might be cute or funny if it was for animal stories or some other fluff. But the topics to choose from were: the Afghan government’s takeover of women’s shelters, homeless female Iraq/Afghanistan veterans and the arms trade in Abu Dhabi, which has implications for Africa and the Middle East. As Stewart said, “Those all seem kind of important.” Someone in the comments helpfully pointed out that in the time CNN spent shilling (I almost wrote “whoring”) the segment, they could have covered all three stories in a fair amount of detail.

Granted, it’s not just CNN. It’s an easy target because Stewart did such a good job ridiculing it. After spending almost five months living in the UK, I think maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the BBC. The BBC has its share of cute stuff, but more often than not it covers the world hard-core. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, even Wisconsin: The stories are there. Analyses of fashion, technology, film and music sit next to market reports, biographies of world leaders and multimedia coverage. Reader input is requested and used, but it sits alongside the coverage, giving it depth and perspective.

I wondered, how could the BBC (and even other sources like Al Jazeera English) get things so right and CNN and its ilk get things so … tone-deaf? I believe the answer is that the BBC is considered a public good. Its budget comes from license fees paid in by anyone with a TV set or access to live broadcasts. It is beholden to the British public (and Her Majesty, by Royal Charter), not to any corporate behemoth. Granted it has its own problems — people still accuse it of some bias and some of its anchors’ salaries are under fire — but I don’t think it would ever treat serious news like some sort of raffle prize. Despite accusations of bias (which you’ll find anywhere), it strives to be as non-partisan as possible given its structure and funding. And it’s everywhere.

On the other end is CNN (and Fox and MSNBC and to a somewhat lesser extent the networks), taken to corporate news’ inevitable conclusion: the watering down of issues and news turned into entertainment and entertainment trying to pass itself off as news.