Improve this post with comments

My publisher sent me several emails over the weekend about complaints about hateful, invective, acidic and just generally mean-spirited reader comments on our newspaper Web sites.

And the comments in question met all those tests – and then some. They had already been removed for the most part after being flagged by users. But one thinks publishers have better ways to spend Saturday nights? Sort of emphasizes the scope of the problem.

While the emails he received were about specific comments, questions are being raised anew about newspaper comments in general, one of the recurring (Oh, not that again) debates on journalism blogs.

Comments-as-bad has been catching fire as an issue for awhile with internal uneasiness at newspapers across the country about the often sordid area at the bottom of stories. And many readers, too timid, perhaps, to click “suggest remove” links next to offending comments, are buttonholing newspaper executives at social events.

It’s not a trivial issue. We get over 1,200 comments a day 24/7 and the number is growing. Managing unwanted comments and commenters is an increasing large time sucker. Some stats are here for knoxnews/GoVolsXtra sites.

But when the queens of rumor-mongering and snarky say they’ve seen enough, well, that’s red hot coals to cook up the debate.

On July 21, Sheila McClear of Gawker.com in the provocatively titled post  laid down the argument “Why Newspapers Shouldn’t Allow Comments:”

You could argue that newspapers should rigorously vet and moderate their comments, or at least require them to use their full names. I’d argue that this is a silly misuse of their time; I’m not suggesting that newspapers should actively patrol their comments, like this and some other web sites do. (We’re a blog; comments are in our blood.) I’m suggesting they get rid of them altogether. (This doesn’t include the blog sections of various papers, which the NYT and Washington Post are stuffed full of.)

Newspapers have more important things to do than worry about comments–like, say, report the stories that blogs so desperately need in their 24-7 quest for content!

And Mike Masnick at TechDirt on Friday agreed in part with Gawker’s analysis that comments are “dumb” but blamed the newspapers for not engaging with the commenters:

There’s no indication that anyone at most newspapers read the comments. The authors of the articles rarely, if ever, respond to people in the comments. There’s little to no engagement or discussion. So, instead, the comments just become a way for readers to vent. Just tossing up comments and thinking you’ve created a community is a mistake — but that doesn’t mean newspapers shouldn’t enable comments. It just means they should do so in a more intelligent manner.

And On the Media, produced by public radio station WNYC did a three-parter that aired on Friday.

Bob Garfield and Ira Glas on the dark side of commenting:

Lee Siegel has a battlefront account:

And Roanoke Times editor Carole Tarrant argues that newspapers can’t be online without reader comments, but have a responsibility to keep the conversation civilized.

Not everyone is backing away from the idea that comments enhance.

Derek Powazek in “This is Not a Comment” said the Bob Garfield/Ira Glass piece “came out sounding like another old journalist kvetching about how everyone on the net is an idiot.”
He continued:

Chastising all internet commenters for the actions of the loudest, craziest ones is no different that swearing off all newspapers because of Jason Blair.

Of course unmoderated anonymous comments on the internet can be incomprehensibly awful and frustratingly stupid. They can also be heartbreakingly sincere and shatteringly honest. That’s because they’re written by real people, and real people are complicated, messy, and weird.

Pat Thornton, writing at BeatBlogging.org, says he suspects the Gawker piece was a bit of “link bait.” In a blog house that pays its writers based in large part on the traffic they generate, who would think of such a thing?

Thornton wrote:

The only reason I’m responding to this post is because many people within the journalism sphere — especially people who aren’t fond of many Web tools — are going to use the Gawker post to justify not allowing people to comment.

If a news organization is not willing to cultivate comments and build a community, then, yes, comments may not be a great idea. But that’s the real problem. Newspapers should care about building a community.

Commenting and comment management systems will evolve for newspaper Web sites. We’re at 1.0 versions for managing large scale commenting. Some very large blogs also don’t have comments either for these very same management issues. If we were Microsoft, we’d begin to get something useful by version 3.0.

The best of comments are often better than the stories, but under the bridges live the Trolls, the unhappy, the hateful, the racist and the sexist.

Sorry, Sheila, I don’t think you’ll see newspapers Web sites dump comments, but they will likely adapt and refine their approaches. And I think we will get to balance between a street brawl and Miss Manners.

At least that’s the hope. For now, if you don’t like them, try not reading them.

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70 Replies to “Improve this post with comments”

  1. You have to keep the comments. There’s no other option if you want to keep the KNS website relevant. I read through the comments on the TVUU shooting, and while I was disturbed by some of the commentary, the fact of the matter is that people are commenting. The volume of good comments still outweighs the garbage.
    The web has made news delivery a dialog instead of a monologue and that is the selling point of a news website. It isn’t really video or audio; those things are nice and they’ll certainly pull people in, but it’s the conversation that keeps them on your site. If you lose that, you’ll lose your audience.
    And this leads to the inescapable conclusion that comment moderation will become an integral part of the news delivery process.

  2. I believe you are right that comment or conversation management will become part of the story lifecycle. We’re still figuring out how that works.

  3. I was discussing this yesterday in light of some of the hateful comments on the TVUUC news.
    Personally I think the comments add much to the article. I read them until they boil down to hate mongering and flame wars. My bet is that newspapers attract the same neophyte, entry level Internet users that YouTube attracts (granted the age differences from YouTube users to newspaper sites is probably drastically different). I say this because newspapers (and television news) aggressively market their websites to their readership (viewership). These types of readers do not understand the reach of their comment. I would go so far as to bet some of them think they are dialoging directly to the newspaper. I base that on conversations I have had with adults and teens I have personally educated about netiquette and the Internet itself.
    I wager that if you put the hateful commenters in a large gathering of people and asked them to address the crowd, that most would not utter the same hatefulness. Julius Fast wrote a book called Body Language in the 70s. In it, he addressed road rage and how being in a car gave us a sense of anonymity which encouraged behaviors we otherwise would never consider. Anonymity on the Internet encourages the same lack of restraint on our behaviors.
    I do not admonish anonymous comments. I think they are necessary. I think comments on newspaper and television news websites are necessary for enhancing the value of the reporting. I think newspapers will find solutions to the commenting problem through a combination of automated tools (ala Spam Karma), Amazon’s mechanical turk, crowdsourcing, trusted user pools, and outsourcing moderation to India et al. Each of these would put questionable comments to a “review” or “moderated” state and then could be reviewed by staff. Regarding trusted user pools, people love the illusion of power and by giving some regular, good commenters the authority to instantly move a comment to moderation by be a solution that reduces the load on staff; perhaps they are rewarded with a free subscription to the newspaper and paid portions of the website.
    Tough challenge ahead for you guys!
    Jott.com accomplishes its magic through a combination of computer speech to text, and human transcribers. I see the future of your comment moderation using a similar model.

  4. In addition to your software/technology solutions, some are also outsourcing first level comment management I am seeing some calls in the TVUUC comments to remove comments, but many of those are really great comments. It’s a battle!

  5. “…seeing some calls in the TVUUC comments to remove comments, but many of those are really great comments…”
    Oh yes! The challenge of censorship. Just because someone says something I don’t agree with does not mean their voice should be smothered. That is hard.
    “…Amazon’s mechanical turk, crowdsourcing, trusted user pools, and outsourcing moderation to India…”
    Those would all be outsourcing.
    Bizarre comments do hit all mediums that allow commenting. Newspapers just get them in such volume! Even my little playground gets some comments that just have me scratching my head.

  6. Community management – done by smart, compassionate humans trained in the specialized career skill of community moderation – should be the fastest growing area of paid employment within journalism today. But nobody seems to get that yet.
    Comments and community are one of the primary drivers of traffic growth. Moderating news site-associated online community deserves resources, innovation and manpower.

  7. Thanks for the good post, Jack. I go away on vacation for a week, and a big debate over story comments breaks out on that big bad interweb! Good timing, actually; we are literally days away from (finally) launching story comments on our site.
    I thought Siegel’s observation that there is a new hierarchy developing (those who are loud enough to shout down the reasoned commenters) was interesting.
    I’m staging a series of brownbags later this week and early next before we launch them on our site; it will be important to acknowledge that there’s going to be some bad stuff — but that we ALL in our newsroom have a responsibility to watch for it and point it out. If we don’t, the reporters will just throw it over the wall to the “online guys” with a snarky, “I told you so.”

  8. Newspapers edit letters to the editor, and hire staff to do so. The same standards should apply to comments.

  9. I see both sides of this. On one hand, I don’t view a news site as a resource for community input and opinion. Then again, the newspaper is there for the community.
    I love some of the folks who comment on KNS *cough* Billie *cough*. I also enjoy reading people’s comments who are driven crazy by something as silly as a football game, but for the most part can do without the comments. I tend to view the news(paper) as a source for raw info, and I’ll click over to blogs to get opinion.
    However, the comments are at the end of the articles…it’s easy to just ignore them.

  10. So, I took your linkbait on Facebook, Jack, and decided to check out your post…
    This is an issue near and dear to my heart, give my years of interacting online (consistently since ’98, and a few years in the early 90’s through a friend’s work computer) and work as a soc. media consultant….
    I’d say that, overall, comments are a good thing. But do they have to be attached directly to an article *if there is no one connected with the article or the newspaper interacting with the community*? If no one is interacting with the community, then there may be no reason for them.
    Here’s some background: The purpose of comments to blog posts (where they originated) had to do with the writer wanting to interact with readers, or at least to know personally and directly who the readers happen to be. The writer can interact in a number of ways–from addressing the comments directly, to writing a post quoting someone from the comments. But, interaction is important.
    If comments are there strictly for “the audience” to have their say, well, then, what you have is a message board tacked on to your comments. Not a comments section at all.
    Anyone worth their salt, who’s done any community participation, development, and/or moderation will know that you have to have an active presence in your community (for many reasons, not just “civility.) This person will know that the “boards” need to be policed often and will have to work to help cultivate community members to help out with moderating. If you are unwilling to pay for this “time suck” then don’t bother to have comments.
    Honestly, Jack, lots of outlets, not just newspapers, do community pretty badly. Community includes comments to articles as well as forums, message boards, blogs, facebook pages, twitter tweets. There are wonderful articles out there, and great consultants, but, from what I see, I sometimes doubt if the consultants caveats are ever heeded. If they were, companies would better understand what happens in online communities, and they would have better management (not control, just management) of their communities. Comments sections that are there just for someone else to have a voice, where there is no interaction between company and community, are at their best, superfluous, and at their worst, badly implemented marketing tools.

  11. My latest E&P column addresses part of this debate:
    http://is.gd/12Lm
    I’ve suggested a “go beyond comments” approach (not that it’s necessarily original; but no one to my knowledge is really doing this yet). I think that if we invite specific after-story-is-published user interaction and add-on content/information, then some of the comments-are-out-of-control problem will be contained.
    Also, if the reporter of a story is tasked with following up and participating, that can make a huge difference. If every reporter with a story that generated a big comment response would dive in and participate, including reacting to the jerks or removing them, then the comments become much more civil and useful. Yeah, it’s yet another task to take away time from working on the next story. But it’s necessary.

  12. Tish, I’m glad you took my “link bait” because you did indeed improve my post! Great thoughts. I read where I believe you have said you’ll be blogging a bit less; I hope that doesn’t last long.

  13. Steve: The reporter participation one is interesting. In some circles that’s more controversial than comments. We even have difficulty getting reporters to flag comments that are clearly out-of-bounds (and not about them or their writing).

  14. I agree with those who bring up the need for community management. For the past few years, everyone has acted as though all they needed to do was say “Hot Air/LGF/DailyKOS/whoever is not responsible for the content of these comments”. As though they could have their cake and eat it too–get the traffic benefit of allowing reader comments, but not have to do any work to police them. This is increasingly not the case. A successful site requires a community–and a bad community can kill an otherwise worthwhile site.

  15. I think there is a simple solution. Don’t allow anonymous commenters. Like the Letter to the Editor section, ensure that the commenters are using their real name and address. I think virtually every useless comment will disappear in a heartbeat.

  16. Charles: Won’t work. Quick commenting is what keeps a site going; if I HAD to register an account and verify my identity and sign in here, I wouldn’t even be typing this now. I’d be somewhere else entirely.
    And registered users doesn’t help matters, because registered users can be just as rude and stupid as anonymous users.
    Really, community management is the only workable way. The Internet is NOT a democracy, and it doesn’t work to pretend that it is.

  17. I’m kind of stunned that newspapers have not figured out that they should have comments – on the condition that the commenter first subscribe to the newspaper.
    Requiring that the commenter either a) subscribe or b) already possess a subscription will totally eliminate all of the problems with commenting.
    Newspapers should feel absolutely zero obligation to create a place for internet trolls to feed. Allowing JUST ANYONE to comment is assinine thinking (which explains why most newspapers allow it, I guess).
    Creating a community is not hard. But if you open your community to “just anyone” you’re inviting disaster. In exactly the same way that you wouldn’t invite “just anyone” to a dinner party in your home, you shouldn’t invite “just anyone” to join your online community.
    Requiring a subscription weeds out the idiots, and ensures that the newspaper knows who is commenting, their address, etc., should there be a need to send that information on to the proper authorities.
    So, if newspapers want active, positive commentary in their comment sections, there’s a simple answer: let your subscribers comment and invite everyone else to subscribe first.

  18. A previous commenter hits the nail on the head:
    ” katie allison granju said:
    Community management – done by smart, compassionate humans trained in the specialized career skill of community moderation – should be the fastest growing area of paid employment within journalism today. But nobody seems to get that yet.”
    I would suggest that people look at how the community of posters at Baen’s Bar…hosted by SF publisher Baen Books…is regulated. No one has to use their real name and the comments rarely show the vileness seen elsewhere. There is essentially a “no hitting” rule. You can’t hit the person you are debating and if the debate is about a specific person you can’t “hit” that person ad hominem. Community members can refer a post to moderators and that moderator can either chastise or ban an offender. At Baen’s Bar those people are volunteers. And that site gets more than 1200 comments 24/7/365.
    There are the mega-blogs that get that kind of traffic that manage to delete the majority of vile commentary. There are some as well that do a terrible job.
    Ms. McClear is taking the easy way out. “Oh for the good old days when we had paper letters via snail mail to The Editor. No bothering with the plebes on the intrawebs. we have _serious_ work to do!” News sources that fail to integrate with the modern electronic reality, and it’s users, are doomed to failure.
    What it takes is a commitment to civil discourse and _a dedicated authority_ to moderate it. Frankly, any newspaper that isn’t willing to make the commitment to _both_ should shut down their comment section. And wait for the end.

  19. Since you are experiencing an increasing amount of comment-traffic, the solution seems apparent: Stop allowing anonymous comments. At least, that’s a good part of the solution, since the worst offenders depend on anonymity. (This is a subject I’ve written quite a bit about.)
    Some newspapers are OWNED by caustic, irresponsible comments, and don’t seem to give a damn. The sports section of the Boston Herald, for example, is primarily about baiting the reporters. NJ.com hosts a political chat sewer (the pride of Jeff Jarvis) that’s SO bad I won’t even link to it.

  20. @nomyrealname … Sort of odd to post anonymously with a suggestion to tie commenting back to a print subscriber. But anyway, you have a point. When we ran GoVolsXtra as a paid subscription site, we had very few issues with commenters. Each person’s id was tied back to a real name, a real address and a real credit card. They had user names, but we as admins know how to contact each subscriber and if they were banned, it could get expense coming back as a new subscriber.. Some former subscribers of the paid service have even asked if we could go back to that model because of the difference in comments. Everything has a price, I suppose.

  21. Reading your article, I wonder if my comments are the bad and unwanted kind. I often post critical comments and wish you would have provided some examples. Even though I’m sure you don’t want to. Your article made me self conscious.
    I do agree that journalists should respond to their comments. I often wished they would.

  22. “DensityDuck” is right; there’s really no other way to have a decent comments experience for your users.
    “notmyrealname”: Registration requirements will just reduce your comment threads to a tiny fraction of what you get when you don’t put up roadblocks to commenting. I remember a conversation with a Topix guy about this; they looked at the numbers and realized that it made no sense to limit who can join the conversation with registration requirements. You don’t want to throw away the traffic opportunities that comments present you with.
    For a newspaper, if each reporter is responsible for his/her content’s comments streams, it becomes manageable to have a staff presence that keeps things under control.
    And there are other things you can do: e.g., require an e-mail address (as Jack does here) and authenticate it. I did not sign into this site; I chose “comment anonymously” and then put in my name and e-mail address. Jack moderates his comments; a news site could do the same but have the reporters moderate comments for their stories.

  23. Why should the emotion of hate be proscribed from being expressed in writing or conversation?
    Why this emotion alone and no other?
    I don’t regard the emotion of hate, or its expression, as beyond the pale, or as something that must be repressed at all cost.
    And a newspaper publisher, or a writer for that paper, who wrings his hands over comments in the paper he considers “acidic” or “mean-spirited,” is contemptible.
    Oh, Oh: Are we still allowed to feel contempt, and to express it, or is that the next thought crime to be imposed by the girly-men totalitarians?

  24. Gawker is a pretty lightweight source to rely on, especially since all the commenting sections I’ve seen on their family of sites are just echo chambers with a series of braindead attempts at jokes.
    The way to deal with trolls is to a) write good articles, b) tell people to ignore them, c) ban those who consistently offer absolutely nothing (very strictly defined), and d) put a big disclaimer above the comments. Note that “offering nothing” refers to those who engage in outright abuse, such as posting “Obama ’08” five thousand times in a row.
    I’ve had comments deleted from dozens of sites, and in all cases it was an attempt to maintain their echo chamber.

  25. It depends on the site, but often (such as at the Belmont Club) the comments enhance and expand the information contained in the original post. Wretchard often adds comments himself, so sometimes it is very like having a conversation. I encourage your newspaper to implement the policy where the reporter polices the comments of his/her story, and see how it goes.

  26. Say what you will about Hot Air, LGF, or DailyKOS but they do police their comments. I personally prefer LGF’s community to the others, but Kos does best at community management. If that makes sense.
    Sites get the communities they ask for.

  27. “Are we still allowed to feel contempt, and to express it, or is that the next thought crime to be imposed by the girly-men totalitarians?”
    You’re “allowed to feel” anything you like, fella. But when you comment on
    SOMEONE ELSE’S SITE
    you are a guest in their home, and are expected to behave accordingly.
    Not knowing this, you don’t get invited into people’s homes much, I’d wager.
    Well, if all else fails, there’s always THIS.

  28. A further thought: Sometimes I’ll read a story (usually political) where the reporter failed to ask one or more important, obvious (to me) questions. If reporters consistently reviewed the comments, it would put them and their editors in better touch of what their readers expected, and thus help deliver a better product and more reader loyalty.

  29. I can see where having reporters involved in managing comments could be positive, but more than reporters monitoring their own stories is needed.

  30. Pardon me for going back to the reason for the First Amendment. I thought it was meant to ensure a well informed public as well as vigorous debate.
    You might develop a comment system which allows other readers to vote on the value of comments with a question as to whether the comment adds anything to the debate or is just promoting irrational or fallacious nastiness.
    If a post gets too many negative votes in comparison to positive ones it gets taken down. I realize that this could be abused by people willing to waste time trying to shout down a particular commenter, but the site owner can look into allegations and decide for himself.

  31. From the Stupid Filter site:
    “StupidFilter was conceived out of necessity. Too long have we suffered in silence under the tyranny of idiocy. In the beginning, the internet was a place where one could communicate intelligently with similarly erudite people. Then, Eternal September hit and we were lost in the noise. The advent of user-driven web content has compounded the matter yet further, straining our tolerance to the breaking point.”
    Many of us who run web sites can relate to the suffering wrought by a spawn of human nature and technology. Since human nature will never change, tech had damn well better save us.

  32. I find that the comments at newspaper Web sites tend to produce three narratives.
    The first is what the reporter writes, based on authoritative sources who don’t know everything about the players in the story.
    The second narrative comes from the commenters: Old classmates, ex-es, friends and family of suspects and victims, and disgruntled acquaintances. It’s like a docudrama, where some of it is closer to the truth than anyone can say officially and other parts are far from it (and you don’t know which is which).
    The third narrative comes from the reporter who picks up on the leads the comments provide and writes a fuller story with more insight.
    Brian Cubbison

  33. Jack Okie made a couple of good points. If more regional reporters scanned through Belmont Club each week, including the comments, they could well learn to become more complete journalists – not just reporters. Imo. I appreciate the intelligent approach to this subject, and the reasoned comments.
    On the annonymous comment issue you still capture those writers’ email addresses, so you do have a way to monitor/control those going beyond the pale. I’ve used the same “handle” for over a dozen years, mainly because I was a locally well known public official in a non-involved agency, and then later served as a board member for a major international entity, and was not commenting on anything to do with either. Just expressing an opinion on a public matter. My “handle” does provide an obvious clue to my locale, however. [Nothing to do with a sports team].
    As to commenters being subscribers? I can see both sides. The more parochial the media the more restricted should be the comments. But when a media ascribes to regional or wider coverage, then I think it needs to allow for both types of commenters. Maybe by-passing moderation for subscribers as recognition?
    Thanks again for this thoughtful approach and your frequent responses.

  34. The problem with the KNS coverage was not the comments. The article that suggested a correlation between reading Hannity and O’Reilly and the shootings was biased journalism at it’s worse. I have a feeling the killer read the KNS as well as O’Reilly and Hannity. I would suggest that it was reading the KNS that was more indicative of the type of person he was and more indicative of why he did what he did. All KNS readers are killers.

  35. @Brian:
    Well, in addition to your three narratives, there is the group of people that go from story to story just arguing and bantering with each other.
    There are those that are flitting.
    And there are those have a single-track mind and post on their cause no matter what the story is about.

  36. I was hired by a major daily specifically to police the comments, among other things. I am ruthless about deleting comments that fall into the following categories: do you call other people names? Are you obscene/vulgar? Did you libel? Do you photoshop obscene pictures?
    Some commenters have peculiar ideas about the First Amendment. They believe it gives them the right to do break our posting rules. To one commenter my enforcement meant I was Pol Pot’s baby brother, but irony amuses me so I let it go.
    Today alone I banned a couple of people, one for claiming a particular public figure was a pedophile (based on a comment the figure made that cannot be fairly and rationally construed that way), plus two others who were fouling up a thread about a dead cop. I am zero tolerant on threads about dead people–their family and friends post and read the comments, too, and don’t need trolls defaming their loved one.
    Our readers notice we police them. Often we have notes in place of the removed comment that says the post was abusive or whatever–interestingly, many of them figure out why we deleted them and re-post a sanitized version. A few are thickheaded enough to keep posting the same type of comments until I just block them entirely. If they’re lucky I may forgive them later, if not they re-register and try again.
    I have discovered that some people are incapable of being civilized, and honestly think they’ve done nothing wrong when they call people names. Simply because they disagree with someone that makes that person a racist, a fascist, and other more unprintable names.
    Right now we have a major corruption scandal that’s awakened the ire of people all over the state, and it’s a major driver of traffic. We don’t ask that you become a subscriber to comment–that’s unnecessarily limiting and pointless if your aim is to get a better class of people. We just ask that you register. Asking for subscribers only is good if the future is print-based, but it’s web based so screw it.
    I do not care if you say a reporter wrote a lousy story or got a fact wrong–I’ve fact checked stories and caught a few errors that way, and pass them on to the reporters, and some reporters have learned to use the comments as a tool. When readers have very good questions about a story, I or another member of the team will notice and ask the reporters to clarify, and they’re happy to do so. It’s helped some reporters to be more conscientious, especially the junior ones just starting out.
    We’ve picked up on news tips from commenters. At least one reporter also engages our commenters by hosting live chats with an expert on specific topics. The readers seem to get a lot out of that. A few reporters have come to me to help them cultivate sources from the comment section. If it makes you feel better, just think of the comments as a town hall meeting where the sane-informed, insane-informed, and the uninformed jerks congregate. We’ve started highlighting pithy and on-the-mark web comments in the print edition of the paper as well.
    Some reporters might get upset that someone says their writing sucks, but that’s tough cookies for them. Fair comments about our job is allowed, unfair remarks about us as human beings is not.
    Do we take down threads? When a thread is so vitriolic that every other post is a name call, an obscenity, a slur, etc. then we take down the thread. They notice and remember, and for a while they moderate their behavior. However, at this point we know what topics will push buttons and just stay on top of things from the get go. If we think we’ll be too busy we might pre-emptively prevent comments, or just herd them all to one central location.
    We allow comments to be rated by other commenters, but that doesn’t guarantee quality–readers are likely to endorse salty posts.
    Just to make the picture clear: 500, 800 comments on a single story is not unusual; and 1000 is not a record breaker either–for one story. Add to this that we may have multiple stories on the front of our web page that are related and commented on, plus several other hot topics with comments, means that we’ve gotten very good about figuring out which ones to concentrate on, and which ones can be let go.
    Plus, our readers are not shy about reporting each other for abuse, so if I cannot drive through a thread I can at least look into our abuse report and see who needs to be deleted, put on a time out, or banned.
    If other newspapers aren’t getting anything out of their comments section, I submit to you that they’re doing something wrong. We’ve made ours into a resource, a traffic-driving resource. We’ve invited commenters to do various things for us, like photoshop pictures or submit pictures, and so on. They have fun and they come back for more, which drives traffic and keeps us going, etc.

  37. @Jamie: Fabulous insights. Do you think your aggressive vigilance is cutting down on the number of stupid comments posted or are we waging a fatiguing, never ending battle?

  38. Hi Jack,
    It’s too soon to tell. Some commenters are slow learners, but all the time we get new commenters, especially on account of the on-going scandal. The new commenters have to learn the rules fast if they want to keep posting.
    Unfortunately, we’ve moved to a strange new monitoring system. We can block people, and they don’t know it–they’re talking to themselves. I prefer the old way where our commenting system told them they were banned. They would ask for our forgiveness and behave themselves, usually.
    Under the new system I considered sending out emails when I put someone in the dodo-bin, but I don’t often have time to send out emails and I have to consider the opportunity costs. Usually just seeing their posts removed is enough of a clue, unless they’re naturally abusive, ill-bred people.
    With our previous software we crafted a removal notice that included a link to our posting rules. We don’t have as much room to maneuver now, but I have asked our programmers to consider putting that link at the start of every comments thread in every story. I think that could help.
    There’s no point in me jumping into the threads to remind them of the rules–our commenters are so fast that supposing I posted something on page one, I can refresh the page to see seven full-pages of comments on the story posted within a five-minute span, so my post would get lost in the shuffle, assuming they noticed it.
    I just read Derek’s tips. I am the community manager. Tip 4, with the ALL CAPs fixer–I want that, and I want it now!
    We already follow most of the other rules.
    We give readers the ability to blog and send each other private messages. They get these abilities the minute they register. The comments are directly attached to the stories they’re related to–it’s a great at-a-glance hint about what stories are doing well, especially in conjunction with the automated Top 10 list on the side.
    We have staff columnists and bloggers and they actively talk to their readers–you’d think this would set a better tone, but over here it just means that now the pit vipers will directly aim their venom at the bloggers, too. Our staff bloggers are adept at defusing or answering jerks without getting down to their level, though.
    If the blogger cannot keep an eye on their thread (because they have to do the other jobs they’re paid to do), then they ask me to. The bloggers can moderate them, though, if they want.

  39. @Jamie: We use the “talking to themselves” banning approach as well in our Django/Ellington CMS platform, but if they have been a regular, others will note their “passing.” I’d say many of them figure it out within 15 minutes of banning. Others, a little longer.

  40. For too long, the news media have been a one-way industry, feeding their opinions to the masses.
    With the Internet, non-journalists have at last obtained the means to have their say. Naturally, the formerly privileged elite tends to resist this.
    I consider comments essential. With a few exceptions, I will not read a newspaper website that doesn’t allow comments.
    Of course, with the way newspapers are shedding both their audience and income, this whole discussion may soon be irrelevant.

  41. @Evil Pundit, I guess we’re resisting, but it was a blogger on one of the biggest blogs in the blogosphere that suggested we get rid of them and prompted me write this post. Comments do seem to be a necessary part of what being an online newspaper means. If you were managing a newspaper site, however, what rules would you have about comments and how would you manage the conversation?

  42. “Comments do seem to be a necessary part of what being an online newspaper means.”
    I agree. Moreover, the establishment of an online community is the business model for future newspapers. Where your revenue stream used to consist of classifieds, job postings, death notices and display ads, those days are gone (to Craigslist, Monster, Tribute.com and other places online). They’ll never again be what they were. But an online community tied to a locality – THAT can be monetized.

  43. “I have discovered that some people are incapable of being civilized”
    Great observations by Jamie. I suspect, though, that ‘some people are PARTICULARLY incapable of being civilized ONLINE’. They won’t necessarily act the same way in a face-to-face meeting. In fact, some people are addicted to online interaction because it enables them to expres themselves in ways they cannot in ‘real life’. This tends to explain the people who, as you note, return to reregister after banning. Some people need something that they’re getting online, something they’re unable to get any other way. For some, the ability to abuse, confront, or vilify others online empowers them to an addictive degree. We had one elected official in Hoboken who could get quoted in the local papers anytime he wanted, yet he could not stop himself from spending his working hours under various names in chatrooms, vilifying and slandering his real or imagined enemies. Eventually he became known for this, and was even banned from some forums – but he STILL could not stop.
    So believe me when I tell you, I’ve seen it close-up.

  44. Well, what about the hateful, invective, acidic and just generally mean-spirited columns, articles and commentaries, that provoke such responses? As a conservative and former Soldier/war veteran, god knows there’s plenty in the leftwingnut MSM to keep my blood boiling on a regular basis.

  45. @sfcmac Actually, some of the most unthoughtful comments I’ve seen have been on auto accidents. And I’ve seen no particular connection in bad commenters and their apparent political beliefs.

  46. Jamie: Fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing your insights. I’d love to speak with you more. If you’re willing, email me at fraying (at) that email service run by google (dotcom).

  47. Derek: Sure thing.
    Jack: Great discussion you have here. I’m going to bookmark this blog.

  48. I’ve seen many posts expanded and improved greatly via comments. I’ve seen posts where the comments were the best part, far and away. I’ve also seen posts dragged into the mud, their original intent lost.
    It’s all about involvement and policing of the comment community. If you let things go, the good people who are the key to it all, will flee.

  49. Top URLs of 2008

    Here are URLs with the most pageviews in 2008 for this blog. Thanks for reading. I appreciate it. Raising new and troubling questions … Home page Improve this post with comments Newspaper execs: This is not a fire drill…

  50. Open comments are a double sword. Imagine if Microsoft had allowed negative comments about their Windows and Office systems get in the way.. They would have never launched them. I bet they took only the positive ones.
    Ernie
    Office Supply Store

  51. The problem with newpapers are that they are not eco-friendly. The newspaper must be electronics and must reach the masses. Only then the comment makes any sense ..

  52. The World Wide Web has already entered a new phase of its development. Now, it is much more interactive. Website users can actually transform the website itself. Comments by users are an integral part of that interactivity. And there are no real problems. A little bit of spamming will be there and it has to be tolerated. And quite frankly, if the spam is good, then even that becomes beneficial for the website.
    Ryan

  53. Eventually he became known for this, and was even banned from some forums – but he STILL could not stop.
    ———
    Peter Fernandes

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