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The New Haven Independent reboots its comments engine

The new approach: “We will be posting comments that help to illuminate the story; that provide history and context and perspective that will guide New Haven Independent readers to a more thorough understanding of what is going on.”
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At 8:34 a.m. today, someone posting under the pseudonym “Hill” commented on a feature story published by the New Haven Independent about two city police officers walking a beat: “Great Job, That’s what neighborhood policing is all about.”

And with that, the Independent’s nearly two-week-long hiatus from reader comments came to an end.

The Independent, as I wrote last week, had suspended comments, with editor and founder Paul Bass explaining to his readers that in recent months what had once been a civil dialogue had morphed into hateful ranting. Bass wondered if the job of screening comments had devolved into “managing a sewer with toxic streams that demoralize anyone who dares to take part in government or citizen activism.”

Bass clearly agonized over what his next step should be. Last Thursday he posted a follow-up in which he had some fun with the reference in my earlier piece to the “cone of silence.” Bass also rounded up the best of more than 100 comments posted to other sites (including the Lab and a post on my blog, Media Nation) about his decision to suspend user participation.

Then, this morning, the Independent announced that user comments were back — with some new rules to keep the conversation civil. The most important:

  • Users will still be allowed to post anonymously or pseudonymously — but now they must register under their real names and check a box stating that they agree to the Independent’s commenting policy. (The policy is not new, but requiring users to affirm that they’ve read it is.)
  • All comments will be screened before posting, which, again, is not new. But rather than being handled by Bass and the two staff members who do the bulk of the reporting, it will instead be turned over to two veteran journalists who are working for the Independent but who are not part of day-to-day city coverage.
  • Comments that contain unverified factual assertions will not be posted, but will instead be forwarded to Independent reporters for possible follow-up.

The two journalists who will be screening comments are Joshua Mamis, a former editor and publisher of the alt-weekly New Haven Advocate, and Gwyneth Shaw, a former Washington reporter for the Baltimore Sun and Orlando Sentinel who now covers nanotechnology for the Independent. Here’s how they explain their approach:

We will be posting comments that help to illuminate the story; that provide history and context and perspective that will guide New Haven Independent readers to a more thorough understanding of what is going on. We will be culling comments that not only violate the rules but that violate the spirit of the rules; that denigrate personalities; that are attempting to use the Independent to spar with those who disagree with them, or to try to settle scores.

Since its launch more than six years ago, the Independent, a nonprofit, online-only news site, has been widely admired for the way it handled user comments and for building a genuine community around its news coverage.

I’m hoping the new system will restore what’s best about the Independent’s comments — while eliminating the “toxic streams” that were threatening to overwhelm the site.

Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on “Beat the Press,” a weekly media program on WGBH-TV Boston. His blog, Media Nation, is online at www.dankennedy.net. His book on the New Haven Independent and other community news sites, The Wired City, will be published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2013.

                                   
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