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Newspapers take renewed aim at the comment cesspool

The Fargo Forum just abandoned an experimental free-for-all, and while the Strib and PiPress are looser, each has upped policing in the last year.
By David Brauer

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?'”