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Feb. 1, 2012, 11 a.m.
A comment thread on washingtonpost.com

The Washington Post tries a new weapon to fight the trolls: humans

The newspaper is encouraging reporters to jump into the comment threads of their own stories, not hide from them.

A comment thread on washingtonpost.com

Reader comments at the Washington Post website have shot up 142 percent since the paper switched to the Echo platform in March 2011, according to Jon DeNunzio, the Post’s interactivity editor. The community is growing so fast that Post staffers will start getting more personally involved, starting now.

And not just the six people dedicated to comments full-time — the whole newsroom. “In recent weeks,” DeNunzio wrote in a blog post, “we have had more than 40 reporters post in comment streams, and that number will continue to grow.” Comments from post staffers are badged with “WP Staff” insignia, helping reinforce trust among readers.

The Washington Post logo

It seems to defy conventional wisdom at many American newspapers, where reporters rarely appear in comments.

“There’s a school of thought in the newspaper world that since we buy ink by the barrel, then we ought to let readers have their say without our trying to have the last word,” media watcher Dan Kennedy told me. “I think that mentality has crossed over into online comments. I don’t know how many newspapers actually forbid their journalists from jumping into the comments, but I think it’s fair to say that many of them discourage it.” (And many journalists don’t need any encouragement to avoid diving in — they’re happy to stay above it all.)

“The interactivity team here started taking a more active approach to getting reporters into the comments late last year because we were pretty sure it could help the comment threads — and the journalism,” DeNunzio told me in an email.

“We have not run into ‘cultural issues’ in getting participation — it’s been really gratifying.”

He continued: “I think reporters have gotten involved because they understood that there was value in doing so…We have not run into ‘cultural issues’ in getting participation — it’s been really gratifying, really, to get so many positive reactions from our colleagues.”

For example, in a front-page story in December, Donna St. George reported that black students in the D.C. area were suspended and expelled two to five times as often as whites. That story attracted 3,736 comments, more than 2,000 of those by 9 o’clock in the morning.

With prodding from the interactivity team, St. George struck while the iron was hot. She began engaging commenters directly and by name. She posed follow-up questions. The rapid-fire debate made the comments section something of an online chat. At one point, St. George invited one of the researchers quoted in her story to join the discussion, figuring he was better equipped to answer some questions than she.

St. George reflected on the experience in a blog post:

Afterward, our online engagement team thought this set-up might be a model for future stories: Why not bring some of the people behind our journalism into the reader discussion that typically follows publication? That way, our readers gain access to people with whom they don’t ordinarily get to exchange ideas. It might deepen the experience of reading and commenting; it might enrich the back-and-forth.

For my story, I’d say it clearly did.

By getting involved, reporters can also help fend off rumors, speculation, and flame wars. Last week the Post covered the guilty plea of former Marine Corps Reservist Yonathan Melaku, who shot at the Pentagon and other military buildings in 2010 while shouting “Allahu Akbar,” according to federal prosecutors.

So…yeah, you can imagine that comment thread.

Reporter Josh White posted this five hours after his story went up:

Thank you all for reading and commenting. As the issue of religion has been raised here numerous times, I wanted to provide some additional information I was able to find this afternoon:

Melaku’s defense attorney told me today that Melaku’s family is of the Coptic Christian faith and that they were stunned to learn of the crimes and any connection between their son and Islam or jihad, as there were no overt signs to them that he had any involvement with it whatsoever. It is unclear to everyone I have interviewed — prosecutors, police, Melaku’s attorney — why exactly he was shooting at the buildings or wanted to deface the gravestones or what led him to that point. It is possible that only he knows that. We will continue to post and publish new information as we get it.

“He also mentioned a story,” DeNunzio recalled of White, “in which the commenters had assumed the subject was black. He responded in the comments saying, in essence, ‘Not that it matters, but the subject was white.’ As you can imagine, that really helps stop a whole vein of racially-tinged comments.”

The Post is making other changes to its comment-moderation workflow. DeNunzio said they will reward high-quality commenters with badges (a feature launched last spring) more frequently, ban the trolls more aggressively, and bulk up the list of terms that gets a comment auto-deleted. The interactivity team also created a dedicated email address, comments@washingtonpost.com, for readers to direct questions (Why was I deleted?) and complaints (n0m3ercy is breaking teh rules!).

The impact of these changes — the quality of the dialog — can be hard to measure. One metric to watch might be whether the number of “flagged” and auto-deleted comments goes up or down in the next few months. Nevertheless, the tone of a discussion softens up a lot when humans get involved.

“I can say from personal experience that when I have gone into threads to explain how our comments work or help users with questions/issues they might have, the tone changes simply because the user realizes someone from The Post is listening,” DeNunzio said.

POSTED     Feb. 1, 2012, 11 a.m.
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