Funny thing about commenting

For all the fuss we’ve made over commenting in the past year (and by ‘we’ I mean my newspaper), the funny thing is that since we’ve turned it back on a little over a month ago with strict moderation, we’ve had a grand total of 13 comments.

We said we would only turn them on for certain stories. Our biggest fear this whole time has been whether yours truly will be able to manage the moderating duties along with my other duties. I often pictured myself buried under an avalanche of PENDING COMMENT emails and did everything I could to push for the use of excellent self-moderating systems like IntenseDebate or Disqus. Instead, we use the quaint Town News commenting system and so far have not shut off commenting for any story – because we’re not really getting many. We actually get excited when we see the PENDING COMMENT email. But I think for right now, we’re going to just opt out of allowing commenting on certain stories when or if commenting picks up and just leave them open on everything at the moment.

Of the 13 comments we’ve received, 9 of them are in response to an editorial or letter to the editor – 3 of those from the same person. The other four are reactionary to local stories.

I find myself surprised. Did we turn it off for too long? Are we too strict? Are the readers put off by the rules? Are we just not writing stories that are comment-worthy? (I say ‘no’ to that one, we’ve definitely written stories that we thought would have oodles of comments.) Do people just not realize they can comment again? We do place the commenting on a separate tab within the story. Maybe that’s a roadblock. Have we done a poor job of promoting the fact that commenting is back? Maybe readers are just mad at us for taking it away in the first place.

We’ll continue to futz with the process and make adjustments as needed. Perhaps we’ll work on a small marketing plan to promote commenting. Perhaps the comments will pick back up and I’m just being impatient. I guess months of fear-mongering over them made me expect too much right out of the gate.

The Triumphant Return of Commenting

In May of 2009, I wrote about shutting down commenting completely.  I had high hopes that the conversation on our stories could be better handled by taking advantage of ‘Tweet This’ and opening Cover It Live discussions on hot topics, and of course the good old Letters to the Editor.The impetus behind the decision was pretty much what gives any online or newsroom editor gigantic headaches: trolls and idiots incapable of participating in a reasonable discussion.

The decision also came down during a year of layoffs and pay cuts, as well as a transition to yet another new owner in the space of two years. In short, 2009 just sucked balls.

We worried and fretted about having the manpower to read and approve every single comment post before publishing it, as dictated by our new owners. We’re a small paper with a small staff. It just didn’t seem feasible.

Nearly a year later, and we’re ready to give it another try. We never found a better way to promote conversation in the community than via commenting. We tried different Cover it Live shows and while we love Cover it Live, we’re finding that it doesn’t *quite* get the level of conversation we want. Timing is an issue. Most people work during the day when we have our shows, and so we found it difficult to grow our audience (special events being the exception.) Finding a formula that drew people in was another problem.

No, commenting just seems like a better way to get our finger on the pulse of the community. But we still have manpower issues.

After speaking with several of our sister papers who allow commenting, here’s what we’re doing:

  • Commenting will be open only on select stories – at first. We need to get a handle on what the workload will be like, mainly for me because I’m the “first line of defense” as they say.
  • Commenting WILL be strictly moderated, meaning we (read: I) will read every single comment and approve/deny it for publishing. When I am not available, the “second line of defense” takes over the job. That will either be our New Media Director or our Senior Writer – depends on who’s free. When it’s after hours, comments will just be queued until the following business day.
  • We will not respond to complaints like, “My comment didn’t get published”. Frankly, we just don’t have the time. Yes, we are pretty much going to deny any comment that uses vulgarities, name-calling, or troll tactics.
  • One of us will be semi-active in the commenting. Since we’re reading them all, we’re pretty sure questions about a story will crop up and we will do our best to answer them. We have the access to the authors of the articles, so we’ll do our best to clarify.
  • Comments will be on a separate tab within the story.
  • No comments will ever be allowed on crime, accidents or trial stories. Ever.

Here is the quick policy people will see when signing up (a more detailed policy will be available as well.)

  1. Use your real name. If you aren’t willing to post your name, don’t post your opinion. If it’s not good enough to have your name by it, it’s not good enough for anyone else to read.
  2. We read EVERY comment before it is posted. This may take a while. Relax. If you don’t see your comment right away, don’t worry. We’ll read it, make sure it doesn’t break the rest of these rules, and then post it. It won’t happen right away.
  3. Be nice. This is a civil conversation. You don’t have to agree, but don’t be mean. No name calling, profanity, hate speech, personal attacks, threatening or violent comments, sexually explicit or crude comments, or anything just plain rude. A good point doesn’t need to include calling someone a “moron” or “white trash”.
  4. Be factual, as much as you can. Don’t throw out comments you can’t verify. Don’t spread rumors or lies. That doesn’t help anyone. And don’t throw any libel out, either.
  5. We will allow opinions some might find offensive. We will allow conversation that is strident in tone. We will allow criticism of public officials. And we will allow opinions some may find offensive about tough social issues around race and sexual orientation, as long as they don’t break the rules above.

    This is a community conversation, but The Independent is controlling it on our site. Therefore, we set the rules. If you don’t like them, we’re sorry, but they are the rules. Although the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows for freedom of speech, Congress is not in charge of this site. This is a privately owned Web site.

    The opinions are those of the author and not the administrators, moderators or the paper, and therefore the Grand Island Independent will not be held liable.

So there you have it. I’m actually glad to be bringing them back, although I’m slightly wary about having to moderate every single comment. I wish we didn’t have to do that, but we don’t have much of a choice.

We’ll see how it goes! I do still have my whip and jackboots and I’m ready for all the nazi-mod comparisons.

Commenting revisted – Facebook Connect?

My newspaper removed commenting altogether. I want to bring it back but I’m facing several hurdles.

First, I will happily admit that my line of thought in the previous post about this was wrong. Offering the ‘Tweet this’ (which evolved into ‘Share this), link to our daily chat, link to letters to the editor submissions, and our forums was a failure. I took the line ‘If you’re not doing comments right at your paper, you shouldn’t be doing them at all’ to heart because we were not doing them right. We had limitations. Everything from crappy software to corporate restrictions and requirements.

I love commenting. I believed then and I still believe that allowing readers to comment on stories is valuable both for fostering the community we all so desperately want, and for generating traffic and pageviews. But I have grown wary of allowing anyone and everyone to comment anonymously. The years I have spent moderating and dealing with trolls, and getting phone calls from disgruntled people who know *my* real name, the threats, the damage done to my property – frankly it puts me off. And I no longer care about getting tons of comments. I care more about intelligent discourse. Quality over quantity.

To that end, I’ve heard again and again that the only way that will truly happen is by requiring users to register with their real names. But I’ve never found a commenting system that did that. Or one that wasn’t easy to crack and enter false info.

I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to think of using Facebook Connect.

This is what I’ve been mulling over all day today. I’ve been trying to look at it from all angles. Requiring readers to comment using their Facebook login, which (one would hope) is their real name, would ease my biggest problem: Trolls.  It might also appease my corporate folks who aren’t letting me put comments back unless I sit here and read/approve every single comment before making it live on the site (this is one of our holdups with returning commenting). Maybe they’d be agreeable to the Real Name aspect and let me just rely on spotchecking/report abuse flags as before.

I know one of the arguments for real name commenting is that anonymity does empower folks to say what they are really thinking (not necessarily anything troll-like) about a topic – it might give them confidence to point out something we hadn’t thought about. I don’t have a comeback for that. I think maybe one thing like this can be sacrificed if it means the level of discourse over all comments is raised.

What about folks who aren’t on Facebook? They are left out. Well, so are people who don’t have computers. Those folks can write a letter to the editor. To me, the Facebook option is a sort of weeding out process. And anyone who makes the considerable effort to create a fake FB account just to troll a smalltown newspaper website can be found and quashed pretty quickly.

Should Facebook Connect be the only option to log in and comment? What about allowing Twitter or Google Account logins? Possibly, but again, it runs the risk of the anonymity issue I’m trying to avoid.

What about the reader’s own Facebook security? Does logging into our site with it leave their Facebook page open to access by us? I don’t believe so, unless their profile is open to the public anyway. From what I’ve learned, Facebook Connect respects a user’s privacy settings.

Does this lead any of our traffic away from our site to allow comments and links to be carried on Facebook walls? I’m not sure. I’m still researching this whole thing so I’m not quite sure how it works yet. Even if it did though, is that a bad thing? People are talking about your stuff. Exposing our links to a reader’s entire friends list on Facebook only drives that much more traffic to our site as the come to check out the link.

I’m still a ways off from getting corporate approval to turn commenting back on, but I wanted to kick this idea around a bit. I want to thank @ernmander @bbelew @AnthonyMay @gmarkham @mathewi for their input this morning.

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