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A comment thread on

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

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,, 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.

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  • Jimmy Orr

    Great article, Andrew.  Many of our bloggers at the L.A. Times do jump in to the comments to provide clarity/context, etc.  But it’s been more of an individual initiative, ie: those who are already plugged in to the blogosphere and have a different comfort level.

    The Post certainly makes a case for more widespread participation.  

  • Professor Emeritus Ed Lambeth

    I’m not at all surprised at the rise in the number of journalists weighing in to the Post’s comment section. In the pre-Internet years – the days of the Gutenberg Galaxy – participation by reporters faced significant barriers. Peers deemed it show-boating. Management could find little if any precedent for it. Space for feedback was meager. Readers seldom penned a post for reasons as thin as the absence of a stamp or timidity at the prospect of a tough reply. Abusing the practice, I’m sure is likely to be rare. The pluses are exceed the down-sides. Journalists have long yearned for stronger connections with their readers; now they  have the means to achieve it and, with editorial oversight, it can be a lasting and refreshing change in newspapers.

  • Ari Herzog

    But will other newspapers do what the Post does? Should they?

  • Anonymous

    This sort of participation has been encouraged at Patch for as long as I’ve been with the company. One recent and fairly innocuous example from my own files:

    As Jimmy suggests, though, it’s something with which some editors enjoy more comfort than others. I think there’s some internal cultural resistance to it, particularly among those of us with deep traditional journalism backgrounds.

  • Jeff Thomas

    Out here in flyover country, reporters have been participating in comments for years. No separate staff devoted exclusively to moderating comments.

  • Neil Sanderson

    It’s really encouraging to hear that Post writers are engaging constructively with readers via comments. I hope it’s contagious.

    Maybe it’s the passage of time, but my own experience, as digital editor at two major daily newspapers, was quite the opposite. The vast majority of reporters with whom I worked, declined to participate in commenting (although they would often read the comments, and then sometimes demand that certain comments be removed because they were too critical of the article). Of those who did engage with commenters, it was often to abuse and humiliate the commenter, reinforcing that the journalist gets the last word, even when they’re wrong.

    But when a journalist entered the comments with an open mind, and respect for the other commenters, the results were illuminating and often entertaining. And the journalist was rewarded with increased page views and a higher profile.

  • Dr Ernesto Priego

    This is very interesting, but as every blogger knows, showing up in the comments is  double-edged sword. Perhaps it works differently for established newspapers, where authorial authority works differently to blogs, I don’t know.   I guess this calls for some kind of guidelines for reporters (or at least guidance) on how to deal with trolls, or anonymous accounts when they are tolerated. Sometimes engaging in dialogue is seen as “feeding the trolls”, even if it’s done in a professional, mature, serious, respectful way, because it humours and therefore encourages further interaction. Once again it’s a double-bind, because what angers many commenters is the feeling that news item authors hide behind the authority of the paper and that, indeed, they are “above” it all (and therefore above everyone else, fostering an “old media” culture where the audience is passive and second rate). Last but not least, engaging with your audience takes time and energy. Will reporters be paid for the time engaging with their audience? Isn’t the role of a community manager or editor better in this case?

  • Alex Remington

    When I was at The Washington Post, I was involved with E.J.’s Precinct, one of the first discussion groups ( I co-moderated the group with E.J. Dionne; I wrote occasional discussion topics and constantly monitored the threads throughout the day, frequently entering to respond to topics, caution people to avoid ad hominem attacks, and basically attempt to keep things above the belt. It was a constant struggle, and by the end it mostly seemed to be a conversation between 5 or 6 rabid partisans, some on the left and some on the right, but on the whole I think the conversation was more civil than on the article comments.

    I wish more reporters had done the same, but I understand why they didn’t. I read literally every comment. It took hours.

  • Dr Ernesto Priego

    There you go. Were you paid for that work, Alex? Sorry to insist, but I think it’s a relevant issue. It’s common currency that engaging with readers is good practice, but is it recognised as work by employers? 

  • Susan Sirois Ellis

    In my work at Community News I was always speaking face to face with people from my beat. Do you really get paid for all the time you spend developing those relationships?  I know I certainly didn’t…but it did make me better able to report and understand what was going on.  I think it is very similar to what goes on on the web…you just need to set boundaries so you are not working 24/7…unless of course, you really want to.

  • Alex Remington

    Not beyond my salary as an administrative assistant. Neither E.J. nor I were paid extra for our involvement on E.J.’s Precinct — neither for writing nor for moderating. I think the newspaper viewed it as an experiment.

  • Alex Remington

    I think there are different kinds of trolls and different responses that they call for. Depending on terms of service, it can be easy to delete posts that are simply vulgar or contain nothing more than an ad hominem attack.

    Comments that contain shrill political talking points and reduce their opponents to straw men are more difficult. They’re likely to raise the temperature but contain just enough substance that you can’t justify deleting them, and it’s hard to know how, as a moderator, you should respond. I generally would ask people to source their empirical arguments, and occasionally would find objective sources and link to them.

    I also think it’s important to have a policy by which comments close on an article around 14 days after it goes up. Otherwise, you wind up with months-old comment threads hosting exclusivist rump arguments between 2-4 people with way too much time on their hands, after they’ve crowded out absolutely everyone else with a legitimate interest in the conversation.

  • Ed Kubosiak

    Great article Andrew. As many others here have said we did something similar last year at, with an active campaign to encourage reporters at The Republican and producers at MassLive to be engaged in the comments section of the site. The goal was both to raise the level of conversation and at the same time develop a more personal relationship between the website, staffers and the community.

    Overall the project has been a tremendous success, although we continue to develop and tweak best practices on an ongoing basis. One thing that we did that was well received was to develop a condensed, 1-page guide of tips and guidelines for staffers on best practices. The document included things like the ‘Three P’s’ of online behavior – Professional, Public, Permanent. The simple guide and clearly defining the mission helped staffers buy in to the overall mission of building deeper relationship between the newsroom and the community while also giving them the tools to deal with the inevitable problem commenters.

  • vidyut

    erm… there’s a name for this already – blogging :p

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    graco duoglider

  • Tame’owL

    Trolling will be even funnier…

  • Willfergus

    Journalists arent free to speak their mind, anyway. So whats the point of letting them comment. They always have to back their employer and back ideologies of their journal or news station. I just don’t get it……..

  • strangely stunted trees

    The Washington Post needs burn its comments section to the ground, seal the smoldering remains under twenty feet of concrete, bury the whole thing in the bottom of a disused mine shaft and start over again.  There’s nothing wrong with the ideas of giving out badges and having reporters comment on their own articles, but given that the overall moral and intellectual level there is basically a more racist version of YouTube comments, it’s not really possible to effect any useful improvement with such marginal changes.

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