The Triumphant Return of Commenting

In May of 2009, I wrote about theindependent.com 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.

Ditching comments on stories. It’s time.

Bye bye commenting on our newspaper stories. That probably sounds kind of bitter. I don’t mean to be, because we’re actually changing things up a little. Conversation is still encouraged – in fact we’re going to give our readers around four options to discuss our stories: A “Tweet This” option, a link to our daily live chat, a link to our forums, and of course, a link to submit a letter to the editor.

It all began when we came to the conclusion that our commenting policy needed to be updated and revised. During this process, I came across three awesome articles on this very subject:

All of these give voice to what we here at the Indy are thinking about commenting. It was Kiyoshi Martinez’s comment about replacing commenting with a ‘Tweet This’ link that really stayed with me.

I’ve always advocated the need for comments, even when they get ridiculous. I’ve also been moderating our forums and story comments for several years now. Maybe I’ve become jaded – or more likely I’ve simply changed my mind – but I while I believed it was better and promoted a more active community to allow users to comment from behind a made-up screen name,  I’m thinking now that it only fosters a belief that you can ‘say anything you want’ because no one will know who you are. I think I’ve had one run-in too many with trolls.

My jobs was becoming an almost full-time day of moderating story comments and mediating disputes on what is and isn’t allowed. Maybe it’s burnout that led me to bring up Kiyoshi’s idea in one of our policy meetings. But the more I thought about it, the more excited I got.

Don’t get me wrong, what we’re going to do isn’t a perfect solution. With the ‘Tweet This’ portion, we are sending conversation away from our site. But we are also sending away the headaches that go with it and the drivel that can sometimes negate the integrity of the journalism. The latter is something our publisher has always pointed out regarding comments – the ones who post rumours, the ones who post incorrect facts, the ones who tread the fine line between personal attack and playing by the rules – those kinds of comments, he feels, can drag down a story and therefore our reputation.

As someone who’s been a part of the online world for years, I often dismissed that idea. Commenting is something we should be doing, I said. It should be included with the story and reporters should feel free to communicate in them as well, within the guidelines we set (don’t get into a flame war, stick with the facts, correct misstatements etcetera.) I still feel that we need to foster discussion and continue to be the entity that binds a community together. But as Howard says, we need to be better at doing so. And I don’t think story comments are the way to go anymore.

With ‘Tweet This’ we can potentially pull in a few more of the almighty pageviews because anyone reading a story someone has sent out into the Twitterverse will have to come to our site to read it and then go back to Twitter to discuss it. The drawbacks are that we can’t control the discussion and we can’t guarantee that folks will even bother to use Twitter here in rural America. But the option is there. As far controlling the discussion, we can’t control what people say outside our walls, in the community, in the coffee shops, on the blogs. Why should we control what they say on Twitter? We can (and will) do our best to watch keywords, hashtag discussions and what our followers say, and our staffers on Twitter are approachable and good resources for the community.

Our favourite, and best option to give readers is the link to our daily chat. We have been finding the Cover it Live chat we do to be an incredible resource for us and for the readers. They are loving it and our viewer numbers are growing. One reader said today that she feels like she’s been given a “voice” and has been loyally watching the chat or catching the replays if she missed it. I think that’s spectacular.

The forums and letters to the editor will be the most familiar options for our longtime readers.

Count us among the newspapers choosing not to do commenting at all, because we simply do not have the time, (wo)manpower and patience to do it right.

So this could be really cool, or it could blow up in our faces. How exciting! 🙂