And there was the response you knew was going to come. “Could you be of Jewish descent?” one reader asked kindly. Then he would still understand my ‘hypersensitivity’ to the word collaboration. Although I should have swallowed “twice” even then, because that word does not have a connotation for everyone with occupation and persecution.
I would say: that is language impoverishment. Nevertheless.
What had I done wrong?
This time: the moderation of comments under my heading taken a little too seriously.
Subscribers can post comments and questions under my articles on nrc.nl. That is useful, but the pitfalls are known to anyone who ever pitched their tent online: endless asides, conversations between regular responders, and an explosive neighborly brawl here and there. You can only respond as a subscriber and under name, and must comply with the etiquette rules.
Under my column about the ‘minutes gate’ in The Hague, a prickly debate flared up, in which the prime minister and his ministers had to suffer. Logically, not only in MPs and journalists, but also in many readers an Omtzigt has stood up who snorts, accuses and accuses.
Fine, provided that it is within the rules (including: do not swear, threaten or insult). A hard lesson from the past, when numerous media stopped with online reactions, due to the endless hatefulness, especially among opinion pieces by women and people with, shall we say, a slightly less European surname.
Now you can expect more civilization from NRC subscribers. But when a reader called the ministers “collaborators,” I pulled the emergency brake anyway. References to the war should be omitted, I strictly stipulated, otherwise your response will be deleted. A warning, therefore, no intervention yet.
The Bastille was immediately stormed. Censorship! And there we went, one way off topic. Including the reader who inquired with interest about my family tree. Another recalled the old NRC’s wartime past to explain why the ombudsman was so upset. And was “from above” intervened here?
It got so bad that some well-meaning online campers threatened to break up their tent and beg for stricter moderation. One of them advised me to look up the sun (“It’s the weekend, man!”).
Yes, ombudsman, your own fault.
The incident was a good reminder of the entropy that always lurks in such discussions. But it also shows how changeable NRC has dealt with online responses in recent years. In a gray internet past, this was open to anyone with a cracking modem. Predictable outcome: endless debates and ad hominem tirades (though, mostly the female). Then it was closed to everyone. Years later, it was partially reopened, but only for subscribers and under name – which was quite an improvement.
But it was not yet stable. Discussions were regularly dominated by a small group of many authors. There was insufficient manpower to pre-moderate all responses; it did happen with opinions and columns on ‘sensitive’ subjects – sometimes half a day’s work.
At the beginning of this year, a new experiment followed: responding was stopped again, except for a select ‘talk of the day’ and under a few sections. The aim: to give the contributions more focus and relieve the editorial staff. The result: better discussions, but also anger among regular contributors.
That short experiment is now also over and it is possible to respond again under most opinion pieces. Crucial difference: moderation is now done after placement and no longer beforehand. By default, only comments that have been ‘reported’ as inappropriate will be reviewed by the editors, regardless of ad hoc moderation.
This approach is understandable, but can unintentionally raise the temperature; never nice to see your posted comment disappear again. It can also lead to confusion. The reference to the war history of the old NRC was suddenly removed – albeit not by me. A subscriber had reported the response as inappropriate, the desk editor on duty had intervened.
Incidentally, a subscriber with a good feeling for double hats asked, why does the ombudsman actually moderate reactions under his heading himself?
That’s a good question, with a prosaic answer. Self-moderation is a way of interacting with readers, but it was also the only option to keep the comment option open under the heading, when NRC closed it almost everywhere in February. It is not ideal, but just let us know: the editors will also take a second look, and rightly so.
NRC is currently reconsidering this form of interaction with readers and that is desperately needed. Now that moderation is only done retrospectively, discussions under some opinions quickly fly out of the bend – that puts a burden on reasonable commenters and authors.
Full-time pre-moderation – or outsourcing as some major media do – would be a solution, but is not feasible now. Moreover, online contact should ideally yield more than measuring each other, for example greater involvement in NRC journalism.
In short, it remains a search.
Responding under articles is part of it, but within the rules – and if they cannot be enforced, then in a different setup. Readers are willing to cooperate, I think – just not to use that other word for now.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of May 15, 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of May 15, 2021