Open Letter to the Washington Square News

Gothamist recently reported that Columbia University’s student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, was adding blogs to their online offerings. This prompted me of consider some problems with how NYU’s student-run paper, the Washington Square News, is experimenting with reader interactivity.

Over the past year or so (I’m not sure exactly when), some WSN articles included the ability for readers to leave feedback comments. The peculiar thing is that only some articles have this feature, and I can’t figure out any logic as to why (it doesn’t appear to be based on size of the article, campus vs. national news, etc).

So, I decided to send them a letter, hoping that they will at least respond to me personally, if not publish my letter and their responses publicly:

Open Letter to the Washington Square News:

It is encouraging that the Washington Square News has opened up the pages of its online edition to allow reader feedback. Unfortunately, however, the process seems inconsistent and lacks transparency – necessary ingredients to gain readers’ trust. I offer the following questions in order to help increase the understanding and transparency of this important feature of WSN. I hope the Editorial Staff will publicly respond and, where appropriate, take action to ensure that the dialogue between WSN and its readers remains open and transparent to all.

1) Why do only some articles have the “feedback” option enabled? Who makes this decision and what is the criteria?

2) Who moderates the comments that are submitted using the feedback system for a particular article? Is there an established process or set of rules to determine which comments are acceptable and which are not?

3) Are unapproved comments discarded or retained? Could a user (or IP address) be blacklisted or otherwise prevented from making comments? Are procedures in place for such instances?

4) Does the privacy policy in place for the “e-mail signup” feature of WSN apply to the e-mails collected via the feedback service? Is there a separate privacy policy?

Michael Zimmer

Doctoral Candidate, Media Ecology
Department of Culture and Communication
New York University

UPDATE (02-23-2006): After not hearing from the editors at WSN since I sent this letter 8 days ago, I e-mailed again asking if any action was going to be taken. Sarah Portlock, WSN’s Editor in Chief, quickly responded to this nudge, apologizing for the delay, noting that my message arrived right as she and Barbara Leonard, the managing editor, were discussing relevant rules and protocols for the feedback section of WSN online. She expressed openness to hearing any suggestions I might have.

Unfortunately, I’m staring a deadline in the face, and can’t send anything to her until next week at the earliest. But I wonder if Jeff Jarvis – the high priest of openness and transparency in news reporting – has any advice to pass along in the meantime. Perhaps something that the student paper at CUNY might benefit from as well.

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