A couple of weeks ago, an enterprising public defender came up with a novel argument: her client’s trial — for making terroristic threats against 10-year-old boy — should be moved from Ramsey County because of public comments on twincities.com, the Pioneer Press website.
Despite the case’s gravity, I grinned just a bit, because next to TMZ.com, PiPress comments are one of my guiltiest Internet pleasures, a Hieronymus Bosch hell of cheap shots and knee jerks. Where else could I enjoy someone named “DFL Nazis” assert that a reader concerned about global warming “likes drinking Rev Al Gore’s kool-aid and sniffing his farts.”
If a newspaper’s future is its website, then comments are a big part of that future. PiPress senior online editor Chris Clonts says reader reaction now accounts for 2.5 to 5 percent of page views on a typical day, and up to 7 percent on good days. At the Strib, which is more gingerly rolling out comments, there are double-digit expectations. While probably not enough to taint a jury pool, that’s a lot of “user-created value” and a lot of corneas aimed at banner ads.
Clonts says during the Winter Carnival medallion hunt, comment pages “might’ve been half our traffic. There was just an unbelievable outpouring of community [reaction] and clue-sharing.”
If maximizing readership is the goal, papers can’t simply give over their sites to F5-mashing rageaholics, despite the occasional pro wrestling allure. Clonts says PiPress comments should be “a place for spirited community exchange. Heated conversation is great, witty is great — but it doesn’t take a lot to turn reasonable people off.”
I originally called Clonts because I’d noticed that twincities.com had cleaned up a bit. The sniping — which used to be unavoidable at story’s end — was suddenly on a separate page, and when clicked through, revealed lily pads of rational discourse amid the pools of cess.
The PiPress begins with a wide floodgate: unlike many papers, it doesn’t limit comments to registered users, and won’t moderate comments, a la MinnPost.com. Such pre-review would require too much staff for the high-traffic site.
Clonts explained that the PiPress had just switched to Topix, a third-party comment-handler many other sites use. As it turns out, advertising drives the journalism-comment separation — Topix and the PiPress share banner revenues, so they must create separate co-branded pages.
Clonts says Topix supplies more sophisticated and easier-to-use filtering tools than the previous system, Prospero. Some websites will block usernames, but violators can create another identity. Topix tracks IP addresses, a web identifier that can checkmate violators unless they change machines or Internet service providers. (A little creepy, I know, and complicated. Some IP addresses aren’t static, and if the computer is in a library or other public place, a ban could be overbroad. Topix somehow accounts for this, Clonts says.)
Topix can also ban offenders from all of its sites, preventing some of the planet’s loonies from descending on virtual St. Paul.
Which brings up IP identification’s entertainment value: the PiPress now lists a poster’s location next to their alias and comment — for example, “Minneapolis, Mn” or “UK.” The general theory, I suppose, is that you can further discount the flamer from out-of-town, though intelligent outsiders get marked down, too. My favorite has been the poor bloke bearing a “Ft. Collins, Co” tag insisting he was St. Paulite on a business trip.
Clonts says Topix makes it easier for his staff to remove offensive posts flagged by other users. It’s also easier to shut down threads that get out of control. Unlike the Strib, which hasn’t extended comments to Metro stories yet, all PiPress stories allow them by default. Clonts says he shuts down fewer than 10 discussions a week. (Many involve minority defendants — race still complicates civility. Here‘s one recent example; I’ll discuss the Strib’s plan in a future post.)
He adds that it generally takes “less than one hour” of any given online staffer’s workday to manage the fray. “It’s definitely something that, if you’re not a multi-tasker, you’re not used to. It’s like a little bird pecking at you,” Clonts observes.
The system has holes — an offensive post can evaporate, only to linger in the response of someone else. Such are the pitfalls of editing after the fact. Online staff can counter asymmetric attacks: Clonts said he recently blocked the right-wing epithet “libtard,” a calling card of the site’s talk-radio caucus.
One of the new system’s weird twists is that some comments stay up long after the stories disappear behind the archival paywall — like an echo reverberating after the utterer has left the mountaintop. For example, the Reed story has vanished, but you can read the 186 disembodied comments about it. And if you do a Google search on the change-of-venue story, you’ll find the Topix reaction but not its impetus.
Comments have helped at least one recent PiPress story. A couple of weeks ago, the website ran a breaking-news piece about a 26-year-old man sentenced to six months in jail for raping a 13-year-old girl. Readers were outraged about the seemingly light sentence, and rushed to comment. The victim’s mother saw the outcry and contacted reporter Emily Gurnon, providing a hair-raising quote about offenders plying the girls with alcohol and drugs, yet at the same time stressed that the family and prosecutor mutually agreed to the sentence. Gurnon made good use of the material, and you can read her final version here.