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.

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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The value of social media for newspapers

This may seem like an old topic, but it came up today at work and I wanted to talk a little about how I feel social media adds value for newspapers, even the smallest ones.

The question was basically this:

“Doesn’t adding video and photos on sites that aren’t your newspaper (ie. Twitpic, Twitvid, Facebook) put up a wall between your website/advertisers rather than draw them in?”

I suppose if you’re looking it from the dollar perspective, it does. But if you view it from the broader perspective of building reader loyalty, it does not.

The value of social media to promote our newspaper is something we really cannot afford to ignore anymore. One of the main points of social media is creating a brand with the folks who actually choose to follow us, which is what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to ensure that my newspaper is everywhere our readers are, and more and more of them are on Facebook and Twitter and Friendfeed and the various apps associated with those. Doing this puts us in our readers minds as the place to come for news. I do mention our website at every opportunity on all of these places and I send them there whenever possible.

But keeping us “enclosed” and restricted to just our main website is a mistake in the Social Media arena. People share videos and photos on Twitter and Facebook using sites like Twitpic and Twitvid – especially things of a timely nature. It takes time for us to produce a 3 or 4 minute video with commentary, b-roll and captions/titles. Which is great for features or if we have notice to create it with an upcoming story etc.

But the nature of news is not always stuff you know about ahead of time. In the case of breaking news, the ability to quickly upload the videos and photos to get the actual news out to our readers who have come to expect immediacy – it should not be an issue of where we put it. We need to be able to get them the news as quickly as possible so that they come to think of us as the reliable source of info in this community. We can produce longer, better news videos once the breaking part of it has passed, and include much of the footage shot on things like Flip cams in with it. Those can be hosted on our site and enable us to put together beautiful packages people may return for time and again, or even pay for a DVD of afterward.

My videos that I have done and will do in future are of the brief, mostly raw footage, and in the case of recent tornado footage last week, my Flip videos were online for the Indy almost directly after they happened. The day after the storms, our videographer was then able to incorporate some of my own footage in a bigger video package he created for our all-encompassing coverage of the storms.

I do know that “how does it make us money” is the Big Question. But when we only focus on that, we lose sight of other benefits like reader loyalty. We need to generate as much reader loyalty online as we have for print.

The value, simply put, is loyalty and reader branding. If we can cultivate it and be everywhere the readers are, we will benefit greatly – maybe not right away, but over time. They want a richer experience online, and if you can give it to them in the manner of their choosing, they’ll be more likely to visit your main site and check out what else you’ve got to offer.

Another question I got was “If I’m a reader of your website, and I think you might have video of the recent storm, shouldn’t I just go to your website, then click on videos, and watch it?”

This is a valid question, but it misses the point of the realtime benefits of the web, Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed etcetera.

During the storms mentioned above, my paper and people around the state were using Twitter to post updates of the storm using the #nestorms hashtag. Twitter users were following that tag for reports, links, photos and video. They weren’t refreshing theindependent.com looking for that until the next day when we put together all of that coverage, reporter coverage, damage video etc. Twitter is realtime and that is the value. I think the #IranElection hashtag has helped more people see the value of realtime communicating and it feels like we need to be moving ni this direction.

Non-twitter users could also follow our realtime coverage on Twitter by visiting the page I set up here: http://ginewsroom.com/twitter/#nestorms which I promoted heavily when we learned storms were coming. Being able to get our news, coverage, videos and photos up fast is a value the readers appreciate. They remember that their local newspaper does this stuff and it makes them more inclined to start checking our website, seeing our ads, and trusting us to provide their local news. It fosters community spirit, involvement and loyalty.

So, there is definite value in putting the video online in other places than our website. it’s like a tease. We get you your breaking news coverage, now come to our website and see what else we can do for you.

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! 🙂