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Newspapers take renewed aim at the comment cesspool

When the Fargo Forum upgraded its server software earlier this year, it decided to change its comments policy. Rather than review every piece of reader input, the Forum opened the floodgates, wading in only if users reported a violation.

Six months later, the experiment is over — cheering those who view unmoderated comment pages as cesspools.

"In short, several bad apples spoiled the bunch," Forum editor Matthew Von Pinnon wrote July 14. "As the debate became less civilized, more and more readers told us they turned away from the comments. Many said what was once a cherished part of their day — either reading comments or making comments — had turned into a waste of their time because of the low and petty level of discourse. We respect people’s time. That’s a core journalistic value."

There's long been tension between those who want newspapers to extend the gatekeeping role, and those who think old media must embrace the new free-for-all. Neither the Star Tribune or Pioneer Press are willing to join the Forum, but each has upped policing in the last year.

The most frequent reader question I hear is about how the Strib decides which stories even allow comments. For example, this Denny Hecker story doesn't allow comments; this more tangential one does.

Terry Sauer, the Strib's Assistant Managing Editor/Digital, lists eight areas where comments are turned off:

Distressed local companies
Racially sensitive stories
Local homes stories

"It continues to be virtually impossible to have a civil discourse" in those areas, says Sauer, who estimates the exclusion amounts to "less than 10 percent of our coverage."

Sauer would prefer to use moderation on the most important sensitive topics. "But it’s too much to handle with current resources and a part-time moderator," he says. "We allow moderated commenting in those areas from time to time if we believe there’s enough interest to support the extra moderation work involved."

The PiPress goes a different route. Their comment pages are hosted by Topix, a third-party provider. Senior online editor Chris Clonts describes a system much like what the Forum dumped: comments enabled on every story, with cheap shots reviewed only after another reader complains.

"For us, it's less about staffing — though that's an issue — that it being a basic expectation of the Internet," Clonts says.

Unlike the Strib — which features random (and often bizarre) comments alongside their professionally-generated copy — the PiPress segregates user-generated content on a separate page.

"We feel people are smart enough to know, here's the story, here are the comments," Clonts says. "For us, it's a separate click. It's up to you if you choose to go into that alley."

Still, the PiPress can turn off a story's comments if things get too hairy. "The funny thing is, because of the way our system works, we can't turn off [a comment thread] until it exists," Clonts explains. "We do it more than [we did] a year ago."

The trigger is "a high number of comments flagged by actual civilians," he adds. "It's a measure of how bad the conversation is going. But we don't have specific categories and topics. Some stories you think will generate horrible conversations don't. A lot of them are actually surprising."

Von Pinnon acknowledges the hall-monitor time suck. The PiPress deploys five staffers as occasional moderators; the Forum spreads approval privileges around its 48-person newsroom — which had 60 people when the more open policy was implemented. In other words, policing comments is an added task for a staff that's shrinking.

Reader thoughts are delayed about an hour on weekdays; weekends and overnights are especially challenging. Von Pinnon says he spent a recent Sunday reviewing comments for about 15 minutes every two hours.

It's a lot for the estimated 20 trolls who sidetrack debates with racist rants and one-on-one name-calling; Von Pinnon says it's impossible to kick the indefatigable off permanently.

The extra labor could also harm traffic; Von Pinnon says about comments account for 4 percent of Forum's 700,000 8.5 million monthly pageviews.  (It's 4.7 percent at the PiPress, Clonts says.)

"All those rants and crazy posts, they do draw traffic, at least initially," Von Pinnon acknowledges. "People go to watch the train wreck, but after awhile, they grow tired of it. Reasonable people want to debate the issues, not yelling and screaming. Newspapers do want a higher-class citizen. Those are our values, and why people ultimately support us."

Still, the Fargo editor is not an absolutist. Unlike MinnPost, whose policy otherwise resembles the Forum's latest version, Von Pinnon allow anonymous comments, under the principle that the paper can't truly verify names even when listed.

He insists there's a "high wall" for killing comments that tries to focus less on ideology than topicality. For example, racial elements of crimes are not necessarily off limits, especially in explosive cases where accusations are already flying.

"There's a way to touch on the divisive issues, but we don't want to ban radical opinion or thought. Mostly, it comes down to 'Does it stay on topic?' and 'Is it a personal slam?'"

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Comments (13)

Newspapers would have less work moderating comments if they used technology like that in long time use by, where commenter accounts earn or lose kharma points in a rating system. This results in the trolls and other trouble makers being gradually voted down by other members of the public at large to the point where all their "cesspool" comments disappear from view.

Fully-moderated forums consume huge amounts of effort and tend to turn away some valuable comments. Free-for-all forums, especially with high visibility like those at the STrib, tend to be worse than 90% junk and hardly worth reading.

MinnPost suffers from an additional handicap in its comments -- once a story is no longer "recent" finding one's way back to see if anyone commented on one's comments is a small hassle. That additional friction means only the dedicated will go to the effort.

Of course, there's the question of whether newspapers really want or care about the user's views, or see it only as a way to get more page views.

I realize the comments here are moderated, which might explain the civil tone, but could some of it have to do with a name requirement? I have never once understood the thinking with a reputable news organization allowing comments from people who hide behind Nothingbutthetruth16, or some other nonsense. And I say that as a person who has never commented on anything online with anything other than my given name (which, granted, is boring enough to confer a organic sort of anonymity all its own). Perhaps news orgs believe that names are useless if people can fake them? But if you require a real email address in addition to a real name, that alone would seem to be something of a hurdle for impulsive would-be flame-throwers. For heaven's sake, letters to newspapers are signed, and there is no fact checking that goes on as to those signatures. My sense is that all of this problem would end tomorrow if newspapers just said sign your damn or keep it to yourself.

I don't think it's a secret that the comments attached to Twin Cities area newspapers make most sane people want to gouge their eyes out.

To hear that situation described as "a basic expectation of the Internet" is distressing.

You can't have it both ways. You can't say user-generated material is content, too, and then say you don't have time to treat it as content -- worthy content worth reading.

Granted the dailies have a larger Internet audience than anyone else in town, but maybe they could learn something from other news sites and blogs where people can -- and do -- have intellectually stimulating discussions in the comments section.

What do the people who run those sites know that the Strib and Pioneer Press don't. Probably that a intellectually stimulating conversation is one worth having.

Having left a lot of comments on a lot of sites-

I have to reluctantly conclude that MinnPost's rules are the best: Require registration and a real name in order to comment.

Bill Gleason

I can tell you first-hand that having anonymous bizarre comments alongside my professionally generated copy was a pretty miserable experience. You bust a gut for hours or even days (weeks, given the work pace of some colleagues) and your careful crafting of news and information immediately has to compete with "First!" -- and a lot, lot worse, in smarts and civility -- right there, in the adjacent comments.

Requiring a verifiable name is old hat for Letters to the Editor. I can't think of any good reason a similar standard should not be applied to Web site comments. You'd lose some hits from the mouthbreathers caught up in flaming each other, but you'd surely pick up some from people who actually want to know what fellow users are thinking.

Now, if only I didn't forget my MinnPost password from time to time...

Put the blame where it belongs: talk radio.

No other medium encourages incivility and uninformed rants like talk radio, whether it's news or sports.

I also like putting real names on the comments. It takes out most nastiness I expect. I've also had the experience of skipping comments because I just didn't want to put up with the nastiness. I've also tried reporting abuse and replying to denounce something threatening, but it's easier to just go on to something else, even though I know that means the trolls win.

I'm not in favor of letting users vote out other users. I've seen that abused too, where one side in a disagreement just gets anyone on the other side removed as spam. Such a system will just mean the majority stops the minority from being able to comment.

Even on the internet, worthwhile content can't be "crowdsourced" at no cost.

I agree with Mark Gisleson that talk radio has dragged all the media down by demonstrating that brainless rants can make just as much money as thoughtfully written articles.

A bit rich for the StarTribune to complain that it's "virtually impossible to have a civil discourse" in regard to C.J.'s columns.

Dear "David Cater". Be a real person. Jeez.

The anonymity of the internet has historically led to a shedding of civility. I find it very different from talk radio; people tune in to talk radio to hear someone else (Rush, Stephanie Miller, whomever) savage the other side; the standard advertisement for these stations is one of their stars taking an outlandish dig at the other side. The internet has the effect of allowing YOU to make the bizarre comments.

Real names, verified email, and some moderation, along with constant reminders to those who comment make for a good forums.

I have participated in forums for computer programmers dealing with computer coding issues (nothing high octane like current social issues), and seen forum members who had to be banished for their slander of others on the forum.

I don't mind the comments so much.What I don't like is:
1)The censorship. You should either allow or not allow for all on a given site. Interesting that CJ is on the list. 99% of her column is the spewing of her opinion, yet readers are forbidden from expressing their opinion.

2)Sites that hide or place comments lower on the page are definitely preferable. Until you select hide reader comments, the Strib throws the comments right at you before you even have a moment to read the "facts".