A national controversy erupted yesterday through social media over a post by Vermont News, reporter Eric Francis’s blog on DailyUV. Objections to the post -- primarily its headlines -- grew through the day. Yesterday evening, over the blogger’s objections, Subtext Media founder Watt Alexander chose to remove the post from the site and present an apology in its place. (Subtext Media is the startup behind DailyUV.)
This morning, we decided it would be instructive to give both Francis and Alexander an opportunity to explain their thinking publicly. (Read Francis’s response.) In conjunction with that, we also gave Francis an opportunity to republish his post, leaving it up to him whether he would make changes in response to the controversy. He has chosen to republish the post without changes.
The questions I put to Alexander by email and his responses follow.
Can you explain DailyUV’s relationship with Vermont News, Eric Francis’s blog, and others who blog on the site?
We built DailyUV to be a platform for local voices to find their audience. Local bloggers and print publications post their stuff directly to our site without any editorial oversight from us. The combination of local voices and readership on a single site creates a more dynamic and authentic variety of views on this region than any other media source.
This is a new model that is completely different from the typical newspaper or news site. We don’t have any reporters or editors. We don’t decide what readers should (or shouldn’t) read. There’s no front page, it appears as it’s published. And anyone who blogs on DailyUV retains copyright in their work, words, photos, video, whatever.
So our bloggers and print publishing partners are free agents. They aren’t employees or contractors. We don’t preview, pre-approve, edit, or critique what they publish in DailyUV. In these ways, Eric Francis’s blog, Vermont News, is no different than any other blogs or print publishers appearing on DailyUV.
Explain the steps you took when you learned of the reaction to Eric’s story and as the day evolved.
We believe local communities do a good job self-policing local dialogue, even about difficult issues. That shared sense of community -- just knowing the person on the other side of an argument might end up behind you at the checkout line tomorrow -- moderates a lot of the really vicious, often anonymous, conduct we see on national and international websites.
We have tried to amplify this sense of community moderation by giving our readers a way to flag content they find offensive. In the few instances someone has flagged content, we strive to tolerate the diversity of viewpoints that make up our community and wait to see how widespread reader discomfort may be before acting. We have only removed flagged content that was actual spam up to now.
Eric posted his story late on the 20th. No reader ever flagged that story on our site. However, by mid-morning on the 21st, we saw the Buzzfeed tweet criticizing his headline and realized it was getting a lot of retweet mileage.
We received a couple messages from local readers who were deeply offended by the headline. We reminded them we are just a blogging platform and asked them to contact Eric with their concerns directly. We emailed Eric to make sure he knew there was a tweetstorm brewing and asked if he was going to address it. He emailed us later that morning making clear that he would not.
By mid-afternoon, we were seeing a lot of non-local reads from places like California and Texas. When Huffington Post published their coverage, it was clear the story about the story was taking on a dynamic all its own. That story assumed DailyUV was the author and editor of Eric’s post. The comments started turning darker, how we were shameful and disgusting to write and publish a headline like this. We talked about trying to respond publicly but realized by the tone of what we were seeing that there was no room at all for us to try explain our platform in that environment. We were being held accountable for content we hadn’t created and weren’t authorized to edit. We were stuck.
Why didn’t DailyUV just change the headlines, or ask Eric to?
It’s odd. We were taking heat from Buzzfeed and Huffington Post for our supposed lack of journalistic standards, but we were actually standing firm to our principle that the blogger creates and owns her content and we don’t have the right to change it.
Think about it, it’s his story, his headline, his words and we presume to change the headline? To what? Something we think more accurately balances the injury of the accusers against the potential sentence of the accused? Something that will take the heat off? It’s not our story and -- putting ourselves in Eric’s shoes -- what right do we have to assume control of his blog?
On a more practical side, there are also legal implications to editing blogger content under federal law that might undermine our legal status as a platform we also feel bound to obey.
As for Eric, in his email to us, he made clear that he saw no factual errors in his reporting. I don’t think any of his critics questioned his facts, just the implicit bias they saw in his headline. He didn’t see that implicit bias so, I’m guessing, he saw no reason to change it.
We were stuck.
DailyUV was being pilloried on national media outlets for a story we hadn’t written or approved and for failing to alter that story headline in the meantime. By the end of the day, I realized this was no longer a question of what Eric thought of his headline or we thought of our role. The tone of the retweets was directing readers to Eric’s post on DailyUV to see for themselves how the implicit bias of rape culture is alive and well. For me, a father with three children, I recognized the story had simply become a source of pain to readers, particularly those who have been scorched by sexual assault themselves. Each new read on the story just felt like another injury. We decided to simply pull the story, issue an apology on our part and stop the vortex. As our apology states, we did so unilaterally and Eric wasn’t happy about it.
Some critics accused DailyUV of hiding behind the notion of being a platform for others while profiting from Eric’s post. What’s your response to them?
We didn’t make up the concept of being a platform rather than a publisher. It’s right there in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. There’s a long history behind the law and I think it’s fair to say it’s a big reason why the U.S. has been the center of so much innovation in digital media over the past twenty years.
We sell local advertising and want to eventually get this platform to pay for itself. No advertiser has stepped forward to sponsor Eric’s blog so the connection between Eric’s posts and our advertising revenue is not direct.
We’re building a company that can support a more vibrant digital community centered on where we live, work and play. That takes money. We opted for advertising rather than paywalls and subscriptions. We think we have a great idea that can make a real difference in these communities and also be profitable. We’re not going to apologize for that.
Does DailyUV have a responsibility to ensure that content on the site isn’t offensive or inappropriate?
No we don’t. We have a responsibility to consider complaints that call out offensive or inappropriate content and then decide how we want to respond. We have removed content for users who accidentally misposted private information many times. Until yesterday we had never removed a post because it offended people.
Tolerance and diversity go hand-in-hand. Diversity, by its definition, means coexisting with people who have very different ideas and biases. Tolerating those differences doesn’t mean staying silent. It means having the humility to recognize one’s own provincial outlook and engaging opposing outlooks respectfully on the mere chance you might learn something from understanding their outlook better. That’s not a pollyanna sentiment. It’s actually really difficult and all of us routinely fail if we strive for that humility at all.
Tolerance might also mean brushing up against the offensive and inappropriate now and then. What offends me may be routine to you and vice versa. A number of people read Eric’s headline as offensive because they saw it repeating a bias towards the accused in rape cases we’ve seen played out painfully in many instances around the country and the world. We get that. Clearly, others read the same headline and understood it to mean something else -- including, apparently, the author himself. I can’t say for sure, but I doubt the accused’s family read Eric’s post as favorable to the accused. Who’s right is less important than having the room to confront these different views because it’s the differences that teach us something.
Eric reacted angrily to your decision to pull his post without consulting him. Given another chance, would you handle the story or your interactions with Eric any differently?
I don’t think so.
Will this experience change the way DailyUV conducts itself with bloggers or readers going forward?
We need to do a better job in both the design of the site and how we interact with users to make clear our role and the ultimate responsibility of the content authors for their own content. Our platform should put authors and their readers more directly in contact with one another because that’s where this dialogue really belongs.
Almost all the criticism of Eric’s headline came down on DailyUV instead of being directed to Eric. There are a lot of other voices on DailyUV -- bloggers and print publishers sharing their stories about a wide range of real issues who may well have found Eric’s headlines equally offensive but who were themselves impugned by association because they appear on DailyUV. That’s our failure to tell our story better.