The quiet changes to our comment threads

A few regulars at the virtual Editor’s Desk got talking about comments Friday on an old post, so I’m hitting refresh on that conversation with a new blog post and answering a few questions they brought up.

At February’s panel discussion in Poulsbo I shared a few ideas for online comment moderation that our fellow Scripps newspapers were planning on experimenting with. I said it was likely the Sun could take direction from those tests to change how our comments are moderated. Colleen Smidt asked for an update, saying that “just letting it go” is having consequences.

Those consequences are a fear of mine, of course, and in her comment Colleen painted a pretty discouraging picture. Believe me, I take it to heart when I hear readers steer clear of our journalism because of what goes on in the discussion beneath.

Contrary to Colleen’s statement, we have not been “letting it go” lately. In fact, a few of the editors and some reporters have been more aggressive than usual over the past few months in removing comments, banning users, and turning the comments off stories after a certain period of time — we’ve just done so quietly. We also posted a page with our guidelines, and made those more prominent on each story online. I preferred to do that to a big announcement about the strategy; not to sneak up on the commentors, but as an attempt to quietly correct or cull out some of the worst of our comment boards. We still contact commentors individually, so it’s not like we’re doing this in the dark. I generally believe in incremental change rather than abrupt shifts of strategy to achieve a goal, I suppose. I also believe that verifying everyone’s name, in today’s day and age, is a hopeless quest, and I believe that anonymity through a pseudonym is not only acceptable, it’s an important thing to offer, despite some of the headaches. So major shifts that involved either of those options weren’t part of the discussion.

Have our recent actions worked? Colleen’s statements make me think we haven’t moved the needle much, though even she admits she’s been reading comment threads less frequently. (Go ahead and correct me below, Colleen, if I’ve misrepresented your statement.) I know I’ve received thanks for removing one abusive commentor, and my anecdotal observation has been that certain topics are seeing less of the worst statements — the protracted conversations do still exist, but we’re trying to relegate those to the letters to the editor, which we rarely monitor closely. Opinion pieces like letters get a different treatment, because they are a forum for opinions.

Those heated threads for certain issues may always exist, and for now I’ve decided to err on the side of allowing that on our site rather than dictate what stories people can and cannot comment on, or try to shut things down altogether.

Exercising control over where comments appear was the tactic taken by my fellow editor and friend Joe Howry, at the Ventura County Star. I’ve shared his recent column (which had over 700 comments when I counted last week) with a few people, but essentially Joe got sick and tired of comments. Really sick and tired, if you read his acerbic column that calls his online community a “cesspool.” Joe doesn’t pull his punches. His decision — because a technical solution was not happening anytime soon — was to limit the stories readers could comment on, and then aggressively moderate those threads. He tells me he’s enjoyed the change so far.

Other ideas I’ve seen recently in the industry: leaving certain stories off-limits for comments (we have a modified version of this, with child sex offense cases, and I like parts of this idea); outsourcing comment moderation, like the Boston Globe has done (I don’t really like giving away that control, as much of a burden as it may be); verifying every single user who signs up with a phone call (this is pretty tricky tech-wise and staffing-wise, and may not really help much); or just turning them off entirely (that is, burying your head in the sand).

There may still be a technological solution, but we’re not inventing it here. We’re sticking with some simple principles we’ve believed all along that can apply no matter what software you’re using — participating in the forums ourselves to answer questions or explain policy, asking users to help by flagging inappropriate comments, making our guidelines clear and enforcing our stated guidelines as often as possible. We don’t get everything, some critics accuse. To me it’s like one person refereeing a fast-paced basketball game — some people get away with a foul because the ref doesn’t see everything, but that doesn’t mean the foul he saw you commit is any less of a foul.

It’s ongoing, it’s evolving, it’s a difficult question to get agreement on, and we’ll never make everyone happy — even in our own newsrooms. So let’s keep discussing it.

Now, I’ll offer a few answers to questions you guys raised on the other blog post.

Robin asked… I’d suggest creating a separate anonymous forum not directly linked to articles. There people could talk about anything they wanted. Staff could select user moderators and these moderators could direct the flow of conversation. Folks who enjoy trolling and flaming could have a board for that. Folks who want to discuss community issues in a civil forum could have that too.

I respond… Howry’s paper offers something like what Robin suggests. You know what happens? The trolls are kind to each other in that open forum, chatting respectfully about the weather or whatever’s on their mind. Then they find a story, and start trolling again. Separating trolling from a civil forum isn’t always so cut and dried, and trying to say “you guys play over here, the adults are talking over here” seems a little condescending and doomed to fail. We also tried open forums a few years ago, before we had comments enabled on the stories. They were a dud.

Sharon O’Hara asked… Do the blog posts fit in with and represent the position of the Kitsap Sun to inform and stay in business?

I respond… Allowing readers to comment isn’t part of the historical mission of professional journalism in Kitsap County, but allowing online feedback certainly has become part of the paper’s role. People go on and on with hypothetical “good” and “bad” examples of comments in this argument, so I know the danger in me doing what I’m about to do. One struck me recently, on this story, as a reminder of the value of anonymity. A homeless woman, who probably feels stigmatized because of her current place in life, had a forum to share her experience. It was a short comment, the lengthy thread itself had plenty of removed posts among the range of opinions on a high-profile issue, but hearing her voice informed me, at least in a small way that wasn’t part of the same old argument over the welfare state or concern for humanity. She had a voice. We try to facilitate the voice of the powerless when we report on issues like homelessness, and this was one other way we were able to do so. I think that’s in line with what we’ve always tried to provide, even with the baggage attached.

Colleen asked… Is the current environment of the comment forum driving down paid reader subscriptions? Is the current environment of the comment forum making it difficult to maintain or increase paid advertisers revenue levels? Will improving the environment of the forum with increased moderation even be possible with current staff numbers and or budget restrictions?

I respond… I doubt the comment threads have anything to do with print readership habits. Our print/online readers do overlap, but it’d be my guess that someone was fed up with the comment threads would be more likely to just stick to the print. I read the Seattle Times in print, for example, and as a result I have no idea what goes on in its online forums. Nor am I concerned. Print readership was eroding long, long before we started hosting comments, so I wouldn’t draw that conclusion from this new phenomenon. As far as the advertising question, the one fallacy I hear sometimes is that we like controversial comments because they boost page views. The fact is that isn’t the case. Even the stories with a large number of comments (letters to the editor) pale in comparison to our most read online stories (breaking news and obituaries) — and neither of those has a big problem with nasty comments back and forth. Advertisers want to be well-read, and our site experiences growth in that department nearly every month — because of our journalism and improvements in display or linking, not because of comments. And on the last question, I hinted at it above, but yes, I do believe it’s possible. We’re busy as ever in the newsroom, but we’ve evolved over the years to accommodate different tasks as they fit our primary task of reporting and editing. If it helps a staff member get engaged with the audience, they’ll spend more time in the comment threads, and thus the comment thread will improve. We don’t have a rule that reporters must participate in the comments, but it is encouraged. Maybe I’m hopelessly optimistic (actually I’m not, some mornings the comments put me in a sour mood), but I still think those comments can offer something worthwhile to the readers who chose to use them.

Ok, last thing, just for a read that’s interesting as journalism and anonymous comments continue this dance. The Everett Herald’s website was being used anonymously by a vested interest, and they called him on it. (Also interesting because the city of Bremerton uses red light cameras from an Arizona outfit, but not the same company as Everett.) I think this reinforces one of my tenants when I think about our forums and any online commentary: pay attention, but take it all with a grain of salt, and the truth eventually comes out.

—David

59 thoughts on “The quiet changes to our comment threads

  1. Mick and Robin, I hope I can still access you guys on facebook. I do really enjoy talking to both of you. With the next campaign season just around the corner, I think the three of us will have some interesting and engaging conversations about candidates, initiatives and issues. I like using both of you guys as a sounding board for different perspectives on the same person or thing.

  2. Mick blogging here is beneficial for the most part. I learn amazing stuff.

    Arguing religion is not anything I will do knowingly. Nobody wins. The old guy will discuss theology any time, any place – he enjoys the debate but NEVER in a defamatory manner and not online. He respects other point of view. The bloodiest wars have been fought over religion and I keep life simple.

    I do not take off the wall stuff personally. Some bloggers try to inform, to educate – others to inflame. The in-flamers usually slink away if ignored. Certainly a waste of time to answer them…my opinion.

    Colleen – I saw you on the local channel Brem. City Council meeting the other day! How cool was that – you young thing!
    I accidentally clicked on the channel, not expecting to keep watching but there were issues I was interested in from seeing them in the Sun and then, people we’ve ‘met’ through the Sun were there, including council members of course. Really enjoyed it – thanks for being an activist – you do a good job!
    Sharon O’Hara

  3. Thanks Sharon. I wanted to be there for my offical appointment by the City Council to a three person committee to write the “For” argument for the proposed council reduction inititive. I also took the opportunity to thank the Mayor for some Neighborhood assistence and I got to finally meet Chris Henry in person.

    Thank you for calling me young. 41 still feels like a lot of milage:-)

  4. Ha 41 is a lot of mileage ! My daughter turned 30 the other day and she was bummed out . You kids tickle me !

    Actually I am only 56 , only ? My wife is 62. But it is interesting her generation really saw things so differently then mine . She was a kid in the early 60’s , I in the late 60s and early 70s . Different culture , music, drug use and so much other stuff going on .

    I am still On Facebook . Thanks for thinking my opinions matter . Really that is quite kind and makes me feel pretty chipper. I sure have had a lot of change in my opinions the past 5 years especially in my political beliefs. Big Business and religion and the GOP have not worked out . .

    I never thought I would be one who would have quit the GOP . But I really think the GOP left me . The dems are just too far out , at least in my area . A bit wound tight also . For being the only game in town you would think they would be a bit more tolerant . I really don’t think the average democrat knows there party either anymore. But like mostpeople they are not involved in politics to what we junkies are exposed to.

    Howdy Doody could put up his name in the north end and get 36 percent of the GOp vote . Always use to say how idealogical the dems are in the north end , well we conservatives are the same just with smaller numbers .

    I do know alot of political history from especially the late 80s and 9os in the ,local Gop . I blame this on my wife who mentioned to me I should take a look and see how things are changing in our community . Actually having blinders on was more fun i think . But the biggest problem we have in government today is the buracracies running them . Not the political parties . Un elected buracracies .

    We use win once in a while . Our candidates were really were hard workers also back then , we always had to do that to beat the dems here. The media always was always a bit slanted , got really bad there for a while with some of the editors and staff. Nasty stuff . People still have never forgot it . Being honest I would have to say the media has come a long way since then , but with the lack of fiancial support they receive from their corporations now it makes little difference .
    The media is not the negative force they use to be anayway,

    I have to say some of the flak they get may be unmerited and coming from old timers like me who hold a grudge, seen some real character damaging media , but the GOP now has no real new comers or any kind, no training ground like the left has on boards and such , and the GOP has no basic political structure . I actually started there e mail tree way back when . We use to use it for meetings , share notes etc . Had people from Olympia trying to get on it . Basically I just threw in my two cents and let others tell what they saw ata meeting .
    Adele Ferguson even called me up about it , in those days Adele ferguson actually was considered anti republican . To show you how bad things got in the GOP , Adele became one of their only defenders at the end of her career, locally anyway . She always use to take her jabs at the pro life candidates and such .

    Now the tree is used to announce when the Lincoln Day Dinner is .
    I don’t even think they know that their are meetings beside the Lincoln Day Dinner held in the county anymore .

    I expect pure dems in the north to win . In the county and a the fun in far as -political challenges to stay in the south end for a while at least. You might not need Robin , I can most likely give you a lousy perspective on republican chances on my own . ;0)

  5. Hey Mick, yes your thoughts and opinions matter.

    Robin has been kind enough to have discussions with me about his political frustration with his “side” of the party election machine as well. When it comes to our collective disgust with party decision making, internal operations, partisan and power struggle hypocrisy, undermining and game playing the three of us share a heck of a lot of common ground no matter what “side” we are on. Heck, we are practically standing on top of one another most times.

  6. Off topic completely here but….a week or so ago I spotted one of those moving ads across the top of my screen, clicked on it and found a salon in Silverdale that offered pedicures and manicures. I called and got an appointment…
    Bottom line is that was the first day they’d tried the Sun’s online ads and Jeri, the pedicurist IS a retired 29 year military service vet and went to school to do nails and things for fun and a second career.
    She did ask about my lower legs (lymphedema) and didn’t shy away from doing a super massage. She was perceptive and did a great job. I’m now walking around with clipped toenails and bright, gaudy vivid pinkish red nail polish that makes me smile every time I see them.

    So. Kitsap Sun – neat ad, congratulations.
    Secondly, why not help support our vets and get a marvelous treat at the same time and/or give a gift certificate. It was inexpensive and wonderful.

    Thanks, KS… Sharon O’Hara

  7. I don’t know where else to complain that I can’t find an ad Harrison ran within the last few days in the print edition and I can’t find it on-line.
    I was told about the ad AFTER our papers went out today for recycling.
    What needs to happen to see the print ads, online?
    Thanks … Sharon O’Hara

  8. Sharon —
    To see print ads online, you must subscribe to the e-edition or the iPad app for the Sun. With either, you’d find a digital replica of each day’s newspaper. The print ads do not run online, online advertising is sold different and ad, of course, are designed differently for each medium.

    If you’re interested in the e-edition, call our circulation department at 792-9222.

  9. David – Thanks, done. I was told to wait about 30 minutes and go to Kitsap Sun’s ‘e’ -edition and finish the process.

    Thanks again… Sharon

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