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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Comments on news stories

Fiona Spruill of the New York Times is participating in a Q&A this week on the Times website. A co-worker emailed it to me a few days ago, and I just checked it out. I appreciate her willingness to answer questions (and the Times' willingness to let her), because I'm really interested in what she has to say.

I'm particularly curious about the Times' commenting policy. Seven Days is moving closer to adding reader comments to stories, and I've been thinking about that a lot lately. Like, how are we going to moderate them? Or, more accurately, how am I going to moderate them?

Here's part of Spruill's answer to a question about adding more reader comments:

We have made the decision to pre-screen everything and weed out the tenacious few who might try to derail a conversation with off-topic or abusive comments. (Our moderating guidelines are available here.) Moderating takes time, which is why only a handful of articles have comments right now, but we hope to open up more articles to comments in the near future.

I know we aren't going to pre-screen everything, but I do want to have a system that encourages civility and thoughtful comments, and discourages trolls.

I notice that Spruill mentions the Times is hiring a part-time communty moderator, to help deal with the increase in comments. Unfortunately, that's not an option here... yet.

I also want to point out this comment thread on the Burlington Free Press site. I almost posted about it last week, but I held off, because I wasn't sure what to say about it. I'm still not sure, actually, but I'm putting it out there anyway.

The article it's attached to is the first (I think) of the two that the BFP ran about Shawn Burritt, a  guy from Jericho who was arrested for driving drunk and causing a crash that killed a high school student. It's a tragic story.

I think this comment thread exemplifies some of the best and worst aspects of online discussion.

Within this thread, there are comments from readers who were involved in the accident and knew the people involved. Their comments add a different and — I think — valuable perspective to the news story.

That is, if you believe that they are who they say they are.

There's no way to know for sure, really, since the writers use aliases, and there's no way to contact them.

There are also several inflammatory posts by people who just want to sound off on the story. Some of their comments are insensitive, and don't add anything to the discussion. They probably make more rational readers shy away from commenting.

It feels like this thread needs another layer of moderation, either by a paid moderator, or by the readers. Some way of elevating the useful comments, and downgrading the others.

I don't know if we'll be able to build something like that into our site, but I hope that we can eventually. I think I want to have the option of reading all of the comments, but I want to see the best ones first. Or I want some way of seeing at a glance which are worth reading, and which are worth skipping unless I decide I want to delve deeper.

As you can see, I'm still trying to figure all of this out. Thoughts?

November 29, 2007 at 09:02 AM in Media/Keeping an eye on the competition | Permalink


Allow me to be the first to comment on comment threads. While I think they do add depth
and permit people who are deeply interested in the story to explore it further, I think
(and I'm a publicist saying this), if not positioned properly, it opens up tremendous opportunities to spin a story. Let people chime in, but through process or layout or vetting,
be sure that your own mechanism doesn't allow punters to overshadow the original piece. Right
now, you can post a response to a Free Press editorial and it receives the same prominence
as the original piece. I'm all for citizen journalism, but there's a reason you get paid to
do what you do and that should be respected.

Posted by: Erik Filkorn | Nov 29, 2007 10:02:39 AM

Comments are fine for blogs, which are forums for building community or fostering debate.

The comments section of the BFP website is unproductive. Often, the commenters are misinformed, partisan or totally disrespectful. Thoughtful, well informed comments are rare.

Reporters serve a purpose. They verify sources. They work to ensure the quality of the information. They try to prevent misinformation. Anonymous reader comments detract from these efforts.

In traditional newspapers (like the BFP and 7days) the best place for reader comments is in the letters to the editor. Here, people's identities can be verified. The letters can be filtered for content. Letters with little to add, or which detract from the quality of the conversation are not printed. Insightful views from readers are.

I don’t see much value in a comments section for a newspaper story.

Posted by: one_vermonter | Nov 29, 2007 10:55:45 AM

This is a fascinating subject that I keep seeing pop up in various places. Boing Boing recently reinstated comments after several years of going without. Their moderator, Making Light's Teresa Neilsen Hayden, is very good at keeping the comment section above board. Cory Doctorow has called her a "troll whisperer." Doctorow ran a piece all about this subject in Information Week here.

I think it's important to make a distinction between the culture you're trying to create in the commenting sections and the policies you enforce to engender that culture. Many people try to enforce the culture directly and that's a strategy of failure, IMO. I think you have to have some simple, basic rules, and then employ some personal, hands-on techniques to massage the commenting culture a bit. It sounds from your post like you're looking for an automated system to select out "good" comments from "bad" ones. Forcing a registration process with a verified email address is one automatic step that can help, but I think the only way to really develop the culture you're striving for is to be very hands-on. Chime into contentious threads and lead by example, send personal emails to trolls (and potential trolls) and ask them nicely to cut the crap, try Neilsen Hayden techniques like "disemvoweling," and, when necessary, delete comments and ban users. You can allow automatic posting from registered users and hold all anonymous comments for moderation with no guarantee that you'll even get to the hold queue if you're too busy (see Boing Boing's warning to this effect in their comments area).

I think it's a full-time job for an active online community. I'm totally psyched you're introducing comments on stories.

I disagree with one_vermonter about the value of comments at an online paper. Commenters can really add depth to a story, particularly a local story. The immediacy of comments and back-and-forth nature of a commenting section makes it a totally different sort of thing from traditional, vetted letters to the editor. I submit this very comment I'm typing as an example of something I would not send in as a letter to the editor, but that works well as a comment. In the last ten years, I've probably written 5 letters to the editor. I obviously can't count the number of comments I've posted. I think comments for newspaper stories makes just as much sense as comments for blog posts.

To Erik's point about spin, comments are already subordinate to the main piece, whether it's a blog post or a news story or a column. There are ways of further diminishing the relevance of the comments. For example, you can make it so you always have to click to another page to see comments, even on permalinks. That separation is subtle, but effective. Peter Freyne does a terrific job of staying above the fray of his blog's comment section. He does so by not commenting himself. It gives his comments section a feeling of being the rabble.


Posted by: bill simmon | Nov 29, 2007 12:11:46 PM

In general, I think enabling public commentary is a good thing. I certainly enjoy contributing to the comments of this and other blogs.

OTOH, the thing about reading blog or article comments (or their cousins, messageboards) is that there's a point of diminishing returns. Should I compulsively read all of them just so I can really understand what every single person thinks?

The truth is, I'm not really that interested in knowing what the "person on the street" has to say. There are too many people and too many streets. I'm much more interested in knowing what William Langewiesche or Jack Beatty or Cathy Resmer or Bill Simmon or JD Ryan have to say. My time is better spent identifying good writers and reading their writing.

Posted by: Nato | Nov 30, 2007 3:12:55 AM

Hi Cathy! I'm always really perturbed by the comments on the BFP pages -- sometimes I'd prefer not to look at them because there's so much hate mongering, but they're right there in front of me. I'd rather have the option (like at the NYTimes) of continuing to scroll after I've finished a piece if I'm interested in what others have to say about it. I read the comments on almost all of their Dining & Wine articles, but rarely on the others.

But there's something I like even more than having reader input at the bottom of an article: hosting a forum for comments on articles. That way, whenever a new article is posted, a link at the bottom would bring the reader to a thread specifically created for the discussion of that piece. Those who aren't interested can read in peace, and trolls are less prominent (and perhaps a tiny bit less likely to bother?). And by putting virtual "space" between the articles and the comments, it reinforces the journalists special role.

Posted by: suzanne | Dec 1, 2007 8:58:18 AM

Hmmm. Interesting comments. Thanks, everybody.

I'm familiar with the troll whisperer, Bill, and I agree, she's great. Although I do think there are some technological things we can do with the parameters of the system that will help us.

But yeah, hands-on moderation will make the difference.

As for the "special" place of the journalist, I have to say, I think it's already pretty clear. I mean, the professional, paid journalist gets to have a headline, a subhead, a byline, a fancy layout, photos, and in our system, gets to have a story tagged every which way til Tuesday. The story is also the first thing that pops up. Anyone who wants to see comments will probably have to scroll down.

I don't think we need to do anything to reinforce the value of professional journalism. I think we need to do more to cultivate a lively and useful public discussion about our journalism.

The goal, I think, is to set up a system where the story is a jumping off point for a good conversation.

Nato, I get your point about identifying the writers you respect and listening to them, but I don't see how that's hurt by letting people comment on stories. I mean, if you don't want to read the comments, don't scroll down. Right? Comments are one of the ways that we identify new, valuable voices worth listening to.

That's the hope, anyway.

Posted by: Cathy Resmer | Dec 3, 2007 12:53:33 PM

YouTube has an interesting new-ish feature for their video comments - which are notoriously thick with trolls. As a user I can rate other people's comments with a thumbs up or down. Each comment can get a certain number of thumbs ups and downs and each user can only vote once on each comment.

This results in many of the troll comments getting low ratings and thus, being HIDDEN. Then if I want to see it, I have to click, Unhide. It is a nice way to let people police the comments section and weed out the good from the yuck.

There is also a way to give high ratings to comments but I am not sure if this results in anything special happening besides a high comment score. Pretty cool.

Posted by: Eva | Dec 3, 2007 7:00:44 PM

Nato, I get your point about identifying the writers you respect and listening to them, but I don't see how that's hurt by letting people comment on stories. I mean, if you don't want to read the comments, don't scroll down. Right?

Amen, and I hope I didn't come across as anti-posting-comments.

My point is really more applicable to blogs or messageboards where the commentary runs scores if not hundreds of posts long (i.e., this doesn't really apply to my favorite Vermont-originated blogs, where the presence of even five comments means "heavy interest" [;-)]). In situations such as these, is it worth my time to go laboriously through every single post? Usually no.

Posted by: Nato | Dec 4, 2007 2:26:30 AM

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Posted by: HID Conversion Kits | May 24, 2008 8:00:43 AM

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