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Oct. 21, 2010, 1 p.m.

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.

POSTED     Oct. 21, 2010, 1 p.m.
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