Big Statewide media no longer print reader comments

 VTWatercooler, others still publishing readers’ thoughts

By Guy Page

July 21, 2020 –  VT Digger, Seven Days, and Vermont Public Radio (VPR) – three pillars of Vermont statewide news media – no longer accept reader comments on their websites. 

Vermont news media’s withdrawal of online reader forums follows a national trend that is years in the making. For Vermonters already feeling more out-of-touch with State House news due to pandemic restrictions, the lack of a public megaphone is concerning. However, “news aggregator” sites like VTWatercooler.com are picking up the slack. 

Online commenting began with a bang. A decade ago, before adopting a paid-subscriber “paywall,” the Times Argus/Rutland Herald website was the hottest public forum for citizen pundits. Unlike the hoary “letter to the editor,” the online comment was quick, easy, and almost 100% certain to be printed. Best of all it offered the writer the immediate gratification of seeing his/her unfiltered, unedited thoughts appear in print, just begging for a reaction from the author and other readers. 

About six years ago, though, national online news sites started having serious second thoughts about the time, cost and hassle of moderating comments, the questionable practice of commenter anonymity, and their own legal exposure, media industry watchdog NiemanLab reports. Pandemic-related financial pressure has led some media to cut comment-moderating staff. Also, some politically conservative critics say the comments ban is intended by supposedly liberal media editors and publishers to silence them. 

“Guess they couldn’t handle the conservative backlash they were seeing,” former frequent VT Digger commenter Bob Orleck of Randolph told Vermont Daily this week. “I believe it is an act of cowardice.  Now they can more easily eliminate us, who are irritants, from any input. Much easier to reject a commentary than a footnote. Some of us will never again be heard through VTDigger.”

VT Digger explains eliminating comments thusly on its website: “VTDigger will no longer be publishing Reader Footnotes. We welcome your feedback on this decision; please write to comments@VTDigger.org. Readers who have a substantive opinion may submit a commentary.” Vermont Daily has emailed VT Digger publisher Anne Galloway for more information. 

“Guess they couldn’t handle the conservative backlash they were seeing. I believe it is an act of cowardice. Now they can more easily eliminate us, who are irritants, from any input. Much easier to reject a commentary than a footnote. Some of us will never again be heard through VTDigger.”

– frequent online commenter bob orleck

In seeming support of Orleck’s claim, John McClaughry of the Ethan Allen Institute noted in a July 10 WDEV radio commentary that overwhelming numbers of Vermonters were using Footnotes to make hamburger of a sacred cow of the climate change movement, the Legislature’s Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA):

GWSA Results Are In:

On June 25, the day the Senate passed the Global Warming Solutions Act,  VTDigger reporter Xander Landen wrote a balanced, factual article announcing that event. Each Digger article has space for reader footnotes relating to the preceding story, and readers are invited to approve or disapprove the footnotes.

.Just as an experiment, I added up the approval and disapproval votes of the ten footnotes for the first ten readers, seven of which opposed the bill and three of which supported the bill.

Here are the results. The first footnote recorded a disapproval of the Global Warming Solutions Act by a margin of 181-18, The second disapproved 169-21, the third disapproved 122-11,  the fourth 72-3, the fifth 97-9, the sixth 101-9, the seventh 81-5, the eighth 78-8, the ninth 95-10, and the tenth 62-9. Adding those up, opponents of the bill outpolled the supporters 1058 to 103. And this is on a news site that has never been suspected of being a right wing forum. 

Now to be fair, readers can vote on all ten footnotes. But this is true for opponents and supporters alike.

Now the Democrats and Progs, along with three Republicans, passed the bill by votes of 105-37 in the House and 22-6 in the Senate. This is looking more and more like a special interest concoction pushed through the Left wing legislature, that a large majority of Vermonters simply don’t want.

The popular website for the weekly newspaper Seven Days says, “Comments are closed.” It explains: “Since 2014, Seven Days has allowed readers to comment on all stories posted on our website. While we’ve appreciated the suggestions and insights, the time has come to shut them down — at least temporarily. While we champion free speech, facts are a matter of life and death during the coronavirus pandemic, and right now Seven Days is prioritizing the production of responsible journalism over moderating online debates between readers. To criticize, correct or praise our reporting, please send us a letter to the editor. Or send us a tip. We’ll check it out and report the results.” 

The VPR website simply states it has “closed its comments.”

Other comment abstainers include the Burlington Free Press, WCAX, WPTZ, or Fox 44. So what’s a commenter to do?

A few statewide media still offer a comments section: including VT Biz, the Rutland Herald/Times Argus (back from paywall oblivion), Vermont Daily, and True North Reports. Yet none of these online news outlets enjoy the same level of readership and content of VT Digger, Seven Days or VPR. Some websites are less user-friendly than others – such as the “disqus” platform employed by VT Biz. 

VT Watercooler is the undoubted beneficiary of online media’s move away from fielding comments. Now more than a year old, VT Watercooler “aggregates” the 10 most interesting news story of the day, Monday through Friday, and invites the reader to comment and read others’ comments. The site has seen steady growth in readership and comments, as readers discover a news site where they can respond to the hottest stories on all of Vermont’s onlines news sites. 

(Full disclosure: the author is also the daily editor of VT Watercooler.)

Bob Orleck, seen here at right with lieutenant governor candidate Meg Hansen, bemoans VT Digger’s decision to eliminate reader comments. Photo credit Bob Orleck Facebook page.