Star Tribune hires freelancers to drain comment cesspool

At Tuesday night’s Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists forum, Star Tribune Assistant Managing Editor Terry Sauer made some news, announcing that the paper had begun moderating all user comments.

I’ve referred to newspaper comments as a “cesspool” and the Strib’s has been particularly fetid. The paper’s writers have complained about the caustic effect on newsgathering; columnist Gail Rosenblum showed up with a folder of reader emails anguishing over the descent into the gutter — and she wasn’t the only critical staffer in the audience.

Saying the Strib wanted to “build back our credibility,” Sauer has hired a dozen or so paid freelancers to “moderate every comment on Startribune.com.”

Because users expect immediacy, comments are not pre-reviewed, meaning crap can still get through. But Sauer’s goal is to have a Strib-hired set of eyes check —and potentially remove — all posts within two to five minutes, every hour of every day.

(Three a.m. reviewers, we salute you.)

The paper already lists several criteria for removal, including vulgarity, personal attack and invasion of privacy. Users could always flag troubling comments, and the Strib moderated selected discussions, but now such intervention is across-the-board.

Sauer termed souped-up moderation a “trial,” noting budgetary uncertainties as the paper emerges from bankruptcy. However, he said his superiors had pushed the move while the paper was still in Chapter 11, adding that it was an expense worth fighting for.

Sure, you can say, “What took so long?” but I give the Strib credit for hearing and finally responding to reader and employee complaints.

The freelancers will be dealing with a feedback firehose: Startribune.com has 15,000 unique commenters each month, Sauer says; the site gets roughly 4 percent of its page views from comments. Although some in Tuesday’s crowd complained that commenters should be required to use real names, Sauer said verification on that scale just isn’t possible, nor is it fool-proof.

Because of the stepped-up moderation, Sauer says the Strib will reduce the eight topics that have been off-limits for comments: Crime, Muslims, fatalities/suicides, gays, distressed local companies, racially sensitive stories, local homes stories and CJ.

“We’ll never allow comments on fatalities,” he quickly added.

This morning, looking for moderation’s impact, I checked out a potentially troublesome story: Laurie Blake’s piece on Hennepin County raising property taxes to make up for Gov. Pawlenty’s medical-assistance cuts.

The knuckle-draggers are still out in force — “Time to secede from Minneapolis County! Who’s with me?” wrote one jurisdiction-challenged reader. Unedifying “liberals suck/Republicans suck” remains manifest, and apparently getting rid of “illegals” will solve the problem, but at least ideologues can’t complain the Strib redlined whole viewpoints.

While no one would confuse the discussion for a Citizen’s League forum, most of the comments I read would be approved by MinnPost’s moderators. (Though probably not the one titled “A Lot of Drunk Conservatives Posting Tonight.”)

Sauer emphasized that “the people doing moderation are still learning,” noting 40 percent of comments are great and should sail through, 10 percent are awful and easily doinked, but 50 percent are “gray area.”

Update: By the way, should’ve noted originally that I moderated last night’s forum.

Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Eric Caron on 09/30/2009 - 08:20 am.

    I’d really like to know if these freelancers are local, or if to save a buck they’re sending the work off-shore. The allusiveness of their references really makes me suspect its the latter, and I’d find that incredibly disappointing.

  2. Submitted by Karl Pearson-Cater on 09/30/2009 - 08:46 am.

    Excellent move by Star Tribune.

  3. Submitted by Louis Petersen on 09/30/2009 - 08:56 am.

    Interesting.

    I heard Arianna Huffington say once that if you moderate these things, you are now responsible for content. Is that true?

  4. Submitted by Sharon Anderson on 09/30/2009 - 09:10 am.

    Agree “but for” blocking of Legal Links, pdf files, Candidates Web sites is not Koscher (sp)
    such as http://taxthemax.blogspot.com http://sharonagmn2010.blogspot.com and or http://www.sharonanderson.org Tax/Election Files 4 Public Policy The Public must be so informed

  5. Submitted by David Brauer on 09/30/2009 - 09:18 am.

    Eric –

    I’m told the freelancers are local folks.

    Louis –

    If I heard the lawyer on the panel correctly last night, no. You have the right to take stuff off without losing protection under the recent laws (I think it’s the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.)

  6. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 09/30/2009 - 09:44 am.

    ’bout time.

  7. Submitted by Brenden Schaaf on 09/30/2009 - 10:04 am.

    I’m thinking out loud here, but I would bet that there are browser add-ons (or should be) that would allow comments to exist separately from the website hosting the main content. At some point, I predict that the “civilized” comments will move to that medium where someone will find a way to verify identities and people can actually have an intelligent interaction without all the noise of the anonymous snipers. Maybe such a tool already exists (seems like Google would have thought of it by now) and the STrib (and others) should fear that their efforts to drive pageviews by relying on comments will disappear under the weight of the “cesspool” that exists today.

  8. Submitted by Tim McNeill on 09/30/2009 - 10:57 am.

    All I can say is, it is about time. A paper who wants a pay-wall needs to monitor those who abuse the right to offer up their own views and chastise those who post their views is just plain wrong.

  9. Submitted by Michael Fraase on 09/30/2009 - 10:58 am.

    I was at the forum last night (snore) and I’m pretty sure Leita Walker said online publishers who remove comments are protected under the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 specifically protects internet service providers — including online publishers — from things their users do; even if given notice.

    I wish Walker had provided current citations, because I can’t find anything going directly to removing comments.

  10. Submitted by Debra Fisher Goldstein on 09/30/2009 - 12:01 pm.

    Pleased to learn of Star Tribune’s move. It was just nasty having to scan through the cruel insensitivities to get to one thought-provoking insight. I know no system is perfect, and subject to interpretation, but I applaud the effort.

  11. Submitted by Rick Ellis on 09/30/2009 - 12:05 pm.

    My question is…how did I manage to miss this when they hiring these people?

    I’m up at 3:00 am.

  12. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 09/30/2009 - 12:33 pm.

    Simple moderation of the comments may improve things somewhat, but it’s a little like a parent whose only technique is to watch the kids and say, “Don’t do that.”

    The comments over at the Strib are a cesspool in large measure because they do not represent a discussion. They are simply a collection of disconnected viewpoints, many written in virtually unreadable fashion. (This is heightened by the fact that the Strib software removes line breaks, turning every single comment into a run-on paragraph.)

    To create real change, the moderators will need to participate — actually moderate — the discussion. They will need to have access to the reporters so that follow-up questions from commenters can be answered. They will need to call out, rather than just remove, rude commenters and the factually-challenged.

    Within a short amount of time, that type of full participation would clear out the worst of the pot-shot commenters, and encourage people to read what others have written and respond with civility (at least) or thoughtfulness (hopefully).

    I personally moderate comments on my own blog (about 75 per day), and participate in the discussion as much as possible. In 3 1/2 years I’ve removed only one comment (for revealing confidential info) and edited only one (for a racial slur). I’m convinced that my presence as a participant is what keeps the discussion from spiraling down into the depths.

    Likewise, the presence of the writers in the discussion here (as evidenced by David’s contribution above) is a part of what keeps MinnPost’s comment section from looking anything like the Strib’s.

    In fact, I wouldn’t even bother submitting this comment to a similar article over at the Strib because it would be lost in the drivel within mere minutes.

  13. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 09/30/2009 - 01:16 pm.

    So long as the Strib is looking to paywall stuff, they should consider beefing up online subscriber perks to include private chat rooms. How many here would like to belong to a smaller community of more like-minded commenters?

    I don’t know if the Strib can ever crawl out from beneath all that debt, but value-added is the way to go, and this is a much needed first step.

    Now, if they would just bring back some more of those laid off writers….

  14. Submitted by Michael Fraase on 09/30/2009 - 02:28 pm.

    For those interested, Leita Walker got back to me (thanks Leita) with a citation on her remark re: online publishers who delete/moderate comments being protected:

    Greenfield, Adam D. Student article. “Despite a Perfect 10, what newspapers should know about immunity (and liability) for online commenting.” 4 I/S 453-477 (2008)

    If you have Lexis: 4 ISJLP 453

    Here’s the direct Lexis link: http://www.lexis.com/xlink?showcidslinks=on&ORIGINATION_CODE=00142&searchtype=get&search=4%20I/S%20453

    Here’s the direct Westlaw link: http://www.westlaw.com/find/default.asp?cite=4+I/S+453&RS=WLW2.05&VR=1.0

    It’s also available on Ohio State’s I/S journal website: http://www.is-journal.org/V04I02/Greenfield.pdf (but you’ll need a login).

  15. Submitted by D Smith on 09/30/2009 - 11:39 pm.

    The problem is that the Strib forgot that it is supposed to be the ‘4th estate’. A check against the power of government. Instead the Strib simply publishes press releases, sports, human intrest, and stab’em & slab’em crimes. Add to that it goes along with every DFL idea that is proposed. Without challenging the status quo.

    When it takes a week to learn about the ACORN tapes, or Van Jones, and then the article has very little content, the Strib appears to either be very biased, asleep, or incompetent.

    Simply stated, there are many people that are so fed up with this situation, that they lash out (inappropriately) in the comments section.

    The other problem is that comments are not open about stories on minorities, or other outrageous situations that the liberals at the Strib deem ‘protected’. This adds to commenter’s rath.

    Unfortunately, many of the commenters make a better case, supply better info, than the Strib.

    If the Strib want to “build back it’s credibility,” It should have current, more indepth reporting, cover both sides of the issue, and do some local investigative reporting.

    Reader comments aren’t needed!

  16. Submitted by Ted Snyder on 10/01/2009 - 07:59 am.

    Thank you, Strib! The only benefit to the unscreened comments has been to remind us that virulent racism, homophobia, class hatred,etc. is still out there. But who needs to give these folks a forum — let them run their own news paper!

  17. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/01/2009 - 08:04 am.

    Let’s talk about those rules. The Strib’s own columnist, Kersten, can say, basically, that Al Franken stole the election, without one piece of evidence, but I am not allowed to call Pawlenty “governor BridgeFAIL,” even thought that is a reasonable shorthand for a governor who wanted to cut taxes and spend as little money as possible on repairs.

    Another thing I’ve discovered that is not allowed is calling Christians torture lovers, even though their prime educational institution, the U of St Thomas, hired Robert Delahunty, one of the main enablers of Bush’s torture regime. But call Al Franken a “twit” as one commenter did yesterday, and your words will remain.

    Sometimes it can be tough to know where to draw the line in comments, but censoring people who mock politicians and religious hypocrites goes too far.

  18. Submitted by David Brauer on 10/01/2009 - 08:15 am.

    Rob – just curious: have you tried calling Gov. Pawlenty that and been moderated?

    I got the sense the Strib allows wider latitude on comments about public officials. But if this isn’t the case under the new moderation, I’d love to know about it.

  19. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/01/2009 - 08:21 am.

    Yes – on both. They remove any comment with “governor BridgeFAIL” or saying Christians might be morally bankrupt for supporting torture.

  20. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 10/01/2009 - 09:23 am.

    The Strib has a man crush on Pawlenty, and a serious problem with subtlety. I once had to flag an obscene comment about Kersten (a very rude pun) that slipped right past them.

    But I’d love to know how long it took for them to yank “Gov. BridgeFAIL”? Was it up long enough for the Guv’s staff to have seen it and called to complain?

  21. Submitted by Leita Walker on 10/01/2009 - 09:42 am.

    The article mentioned in Michael Fraase’s comment above provides a good overview regarding news organization liability. In addition there is an article publicly available at http://www.lskslaw.com/documents/CL_26-3_JULY2009_KISSINGER-LARSEN2.PDF that discusses news organization’s ability to protect the anonymity of commenters.

  22. Submitted by Brad Cook on 10/02/2009 - 08:15 am.

    You also can’t say Michele Bachmann is “cuccoo for cocoapuffs.”

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