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April 20, 2011, 10 a.m.

The writing on the wall: Why news organizations are turning to outside moderators for help with comments

When a news organization decides to have someone else deal with their online comments, it’s sometimes seen as waving the white flag or the equivalent of dumping a problem child at a boarding school. (And that’s before the word “outsourcing” starts getting thrown around.) But look at it from the angle of time and resources in a newsroom: Would you rather have online staff spend their time playing traffic cop in the comments or producing work for the site?

It’s straightforward arithmetic, though somewhat slanted depending on the value you place on comments (i.e., whether you think they contribute to your site) and whether you have money. To borrow a line from The A-Team, “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…comment moderators.”

Most recently, The Boston Globe joined NPR and the San Francisco Chronicle as clients of ICUC Moderation Services, a Winnipeg-based company that deals in, as the name hints, moderating online content. The sacrifice in going outside is giving up the hands-on approach to building online community — but some news orgs probably don’t want to put their hands into something they consider a cesspool.

Keith Bilous, ICUC’s president, says hiring outside help with comments not only frees up newsroom resources, but also makes outlets consider what they want out of comments. “The focus is on getting more better-quality comments and conversation on sites instead of ‘let’s just get as much comments as we can,'” Bilous told me.

Defining the goals of comments

And that’s because the first order of business when you hire a company like ICUC is to layout your commenting guidelines and procedures — essentially what Bilous calls “the Bible to how we manage the content and community.” While this is a necessary step for ICUC’s moderators to know what’s fair or foul, it’s also a chance to clarify why to have comments and what role they play on a site, he said. There’s a need to guard against slander or libel in your comment threads, not to mention the ever-swelling and always creative list of naughty words — but beyond that things start to vary.

“Moderating for the CBC is different than moderating for The Boston Globe or The San Francisco Chronicle,” he said. “They’re all very unique in the way their content is managed.”

One area where sites diverge is on whether to moderate comments before or after being published. There’s a case to be made for both approaches — the idea of honoring the audience’s ability to have their say immediately versus the ability to carefully tend the garden as it grows. Bilous argues either can work.

“Look at TSN, by volume of comments that come to the TSN website and CBC site — which are through the freakin’ roof frankly — they’re all pre-moderated and going up every month,” he said.

If there’s a more pressing question news sites should be dealing with, it’s knowing when to throw the off switch on comments. Not in the “Christmas is canceled” way, but in the “maybe this isn’t the best story to include comments on” way. Bilous calls it “situational comments,” because he’s seeing more sites become selective with what stories they’ll allow comments on. A number of newspapers, like the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, automatically turn off comments on stories about topics like suicide, race, or gay rights. The challenge for editors, Bilou said, is knowing when stories can lead to useful community discussion and when they’ll descend into chaos.

With that in mind, Bilous has three pieces of advice for editors and managers to consider about comments: Be transparent about your policy and decisions. Always be willing to ask if comments are needed on an individual story. And, maybe most importantly, don’t be afraid to take a hit if bad things are said about your publication.

“We’re never going back to a web that is static, as in ‘here is a story no one can comment on,'” he said. “The audience is only being encouraged and conditioned to participate.”

POSTED     April 20, 2011, 10 a.m.
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