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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.
By David Brauer

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.

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(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.

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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.