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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

No comment: The Portland Press Herald’s about face

The halcyon days of SnoodFan99 and other anonymous commenters briefly came to an end Tuesday, at least on PressHerald.com, the website for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. In an afternoon note to readers, MaineToday Media explained that it was shutting down online comments across its family of newspapers, including KJOnline.com and OnlineSentinel.com, immediately:

because what once served as a platform for civil civic discourse and reader interaction has increasingly become a forum for vile, crude, insensitive, and vicious postings. No story subject seems safe from hurtful and vulgar comments.

That was Tuesday. On Thursday, the Press Herald surprised readers by bringing comments back, using a different back-end system, Intense Debate. As the paper put it on Facebook, “Just trying to keep you on your toes!

Comments have been a longstanding source of complaint at newspapers. And this is an issue I have some personal experience with, having worked at the Press Herald for 7 years prior to joining the Lab. I emailed publisher Richard Connor to get his thoughts on the seemingly abrupt changes over the 48 hour period where it appeared Press Herald and other papers had abandoned reader comments. In an email Connor declined to go into specifics but said this:

We switched to a monitoring and content management system to control comment abuse. We halted commenting for about 24 hours as we made the switch. There are many monitoring systems. We are testing several others as I speak. This is a fluid situation not only for us but for all media. We believe we will find a system that will correct 80 to 90 percent of the problems that can result from a totally open commenting system which we had.

Intense Debate is a popular commenting platform, owned by the company behind WordPress.com. It offers moderation settings, comment threading, a points system and integrates Facebook Connect, Twitter and WordPress logins. Intense Debate may solve some of the paper’s commenting problems from a technological standpoint — but “vile, crude, insensitive, and vicious” comments are the problem, it will take more than a technology. Here’s two points I take from the paper’s decision.

A healthy commenting environment requires resources.

The Press Herald’s online staff, already tasked with building pages, editing news updates, Tweeting and posting Facebook updates, as well as creating multimedia, is also the line of defense for reader comments. In the past the staff relied on filtering software to block profanity or other flagged words, leaving the job of moderation with people, not an algorithm. It’s a job that could be all-consuming without any other responsibilities, as online producers could predict bad days in advance, namely any story touching on immigrants, gay rights, politics, crime or poverty.

Stop me if this is a situation that sounds familiar: Story on gay marriage/welfare/suicide is posted, anonymous commenters surge en mass to have their take and derail the discussion over the topic of the story onto something else entirely. For a small online staff (under a half dozen people) the sheer volume of responses can be difficult to manage, let alone deciding what’s acceptable under the commenting policy. For larger news organizations the solution might be to farm out moderation work or build a specialized comment system. By deploying Intense Debate the Press Herald and other sites will likely be able to better filter problem posts. But moderation, the act of applying a paper’s standards and defining the boundaries of readers speech to allow better dialog, takes people.

Why are comments on stories worse than comments on blogs?

The original question in all of this is that newspaper reader comments are out of control. But what is it that makes comments so much worse on traditional news stories than they are for blogs, even newspaper blogs? For three years I wrote a blog for PressHerald.com, and the comments on my posts there had little in common with those at the end of news stories anywhere else on the site. Instead of attacks or random tangents, blog comments stayed largely on-topic and at times were helpful in providing new information. Even when commenters called me out or questioned my work, it never got personal. Name calling was mostly played for comedy. This pattern holds true at many newspapers.

Why are the experiences so different? It could be that a blog attracts a different kind of audience — people already comfortable engaging with social media and maybe more inclined to civility. It could be because I jumped into the comments myself from time to time and tried my best to model good behavior. Or it could be because the voice of a blog — less newsy, more human and more conversational — sets up a better relationship with readers than traditional newspaper writing.

But maybe it’s also because, almost 20 years into the web’s history, online discussion still isn’t second nature to some newspapers the way it is for blogs or online-native news outlets. There are tools and policies available for encouraging better behavior, as places like Gawker and The Huffington Post have explored. And as we’ve reported here previously, in Gawker’s case the comments are going way up, even in a more restrictive environment.

In the end, news outlets each place their own value on reader comments. Is it the natural extension of the letters page? An experiment in connecting with readers in new ways? A way to drive up pageviews and ad impressions? There’s no one right answer, but in the end a news organization has to make sure its policies line up with its values.

                                   
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  • http://www.pzunk.net Pattie Reaves

    I think a large part of why comments on blogs are better than comments on news stories is two fold:

    1) Blogs are a conversation between you and the readers. The author’s writing is self-aware, and because of that, I think that commenters have a better sense of whom they are writing to (instead of just into “the void”).

    2) There is traditionally more of an expectation that a blogger is participating in the comments than a reporter is, so there is an expectation that if you say something, you’ll get a response.

    Most news sites, even in 2010, treat their comments sections like posting boards, where staff interacts very little with what people say. And I think that’s why so many of those commenters are the ones who are a little unhinged, because you have to be slightly an ego-maniacal to just say something for the sake of saying it without expecting a response.

    (Of course, I realize the irony as I write this comment on your blog, Justin. :)

    -Pattie Reaves//@pazzypunk
    Online Journalist (and also the Web editor at the Sun Journal, another daily Maine newspaper)

  • http://kjonline.com Tony Ronzio

    Good thoughts, Patti. There’s another factor at play, though — niche vs. general interest publications. Most blogs, since they serve a niche audience, generates comments from a group of like-minded people. They’re all there for the same reason, right? They agree on liking the content.

    Not so for newspapers. The diversity of viewpoints leads to clashes, the tone of comments – if unmonitored – rapidly falls apart.

    The study of social capital has found diversity can actually erode community. Online comments on news organizations are a prime example of that.

    - Tony Ronzio/@ronzio
    Editor/publisher at Kennebec Journal/@kj_online

  • http://paulbalcerak.com/ Paul Balcerak

    It’s funny this came up because I was openly wondering on my blog the other day what would be worse: completely unmoderated comments, or none at all?

    I don’t think those are the only two options, obviously, but I think some news organizations, like the Press-Herald, feel that way.

    Pattie makes two very good points and I think the key is No. 2. That, of course, ties into the issue of time and resources, which, as Mark mentioned, aren’t always plentiful at the average news organization. I work for a TV station and our policy at the moment is just to let users self-police the comments (I’d love to change that, but I rarely have time to do so).

    I think, Pattie, your first point is particularly interesting. I’ve advocated for news organizations switching to first-person in their reporting on the basis that it’s “truer” than third-person, but I wonder if your point is another reason to make the switch: Personalizing a news story makes it less likely to be attacked (?).

    Curious to hear feedback.

  • Erin

    I believe the level of brashness in this type of forum is directly related to the anonymity the users perceive. Perhaps a real i.d. requirement–or even the threat of outing if user terms are violated–might encourage the most outspoken to cool their jets.

  • http://dylanljmartin.wordpress.com Dylan

    Erin, while I used to think such a move would decrease the amount of trash being posted, some quick observations on Facebook pages for news outlets show that people can be just as rude and offensive with their real name attributed.

  • teknopher

    Personally I am disgusted by the PPH’s attitude of superiority towards many of its’ readers. Apparently they have come to see themselves as arbiters of definitive concepts such as “civil civic discourse” and “vile, crude, insensitive, and vicious” as well as “hurtful and vulgar”. Something doesn’t seem right when an organization entrusted with the responsibilities and rights as a paper of record, decide to take it upon themselves to determine community standards to the level that the PPH has. I can accept decisions in this regard (e-comments) being made on practical and/or legal considerations. But the self-stated rationalizations for the PPH’s decisions seem arrogant and belittling.

  • teknopher

    Just a couple more comments,

    Paul Balcerak, I like what you said about reporting more in the first person. It seems like a clever way to subtly alter emotional and intellectual involvement in the news for both parties.

    And Tony Ronzio, “The study of social capital has found diversity can actually erode community.” Whoa daddy!?! Let’s run that concept past some politicians and community activists/organizers. I’d love to see you defend that one. And you identify yourself as an editor/publisher? Your readership must love you, oh I forgot Maine is the ‘whitest’ state in the union. =:-o

  • http://lincolnparishnewsonline.wordpress.com/ Walter Abbott

    The antidote to unpopular speech is more free speech. Sooner or later those who post rants that are bereft of logic lose the debate to those who present cogent thoughts.

    We’re all in the wrong business if we’re afraid someone might say something that will hurt our feelings.

    If a reporter is afraid of what some anonymous poster might say, how in God’s name can that reporter have the spine to stand up to some sleazy politician he’s covering?

  • Leslie

    One reason why comments may increase on moderated sites is that some of us skip comments where most of the commenters seem to be on the site just to be confrontational when they encounter different opinions. So a site where comments are kept on-topic and civil is more inviting to potential contributors.

  • Pingback: From the Editor's Desk » Blog Archive » A Comment on Comments

  • susan

    I have tried to comment on the coucil race in OOB and was not posted 3 times. I commented about a public person running for a public office and her public meltdown…The very reason not to vote for her. I said nothing rude, crude or vile. I will continue to read other comments but will also continue to with-hold any funds for that paper.

  • http://theglobalherald.com Robin Scott

    Generally speaking, bloggers are more likely to hand moderate than large news sites, which could explain the propensity for people to be more ‘free’ with the crude / hate stuff on news sites: the commentator knows the moderation will be machine or anonymous staffer, rather than an actual person with feelings to be hurt.

    Blogs are more personal, so even the most hateful person will lay off unless they’ve been attacked. Reporters (journalists, experts) who write for news sites are seen more as ‘fair game’ by the vicious commenter, I would imagine.

    Also, news journalists tend not to respond in person to comments left on their articles (probably because they are too busy writing the next one to notice!), which could lead to comments spinning off into insults quickly, as it gives a feeling of the commentary being unmoderated.

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