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Commenting wars, con’t: real-name newspapers, state complaints

A New York newspaper will require the same info from online commenters as letter to the editor writers — and you can imagine what the commenters think about that.

Since I can’t resist this topic, three dispatches from the comment-war front lines:

In upstate New York, Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan announced a new policy: beginning in August, online commenters will have to fill out a form that includes a real name, city and phone number — just like newspaper letter-to-the-editor writers must. (Phone numbers aren’t published, just used for verification.)

You can image what the comments to Sullivan’s story look like. My favorite is addressed to “Maragrat.” Perhaps that’s a misspelling rather than an editorial comment.

Sullivan admits the policy will be more labor-intensive for the News staff, which means some hours — potentially a lot more — will be shifted away from other tasks like news-gathering.

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When it comes to verification, a real name and phone number isn’t foolproof. (I can give you a fake name and a real number.) However, Star Tribune alum Steve Yelvington, who handles web strategy for Georgia-based Morris Publishing, notes in Sunday’s Boston Globe that, “Most of the troublemakers tend to lie about their name and address, but they lie poorly.”

Yelvington, according to the Globe, lets commenters who produce verification info post anonymously “so that, say, a closeted gay student would still feel comfortable posting a comment about the climate at his high school.”

The Globe story, by the way, focuses on the real-life people behind anonymous comments. The worst trolls shied away, but many frequent posters explain their rationale.

PiPress comment host under fire
Meanwhile, 23 state attorneys general have asked California-based comment-board provider Topix to rescind a $19.99 fee for expedited review of inappropriate posts. Basically, the AGs accuse Topix of running a shakedown racket.

According to Connecticut Attorney General and 2010 U.S. Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal, “Topix earns a dime off of other people’s devastation — making money from mistreatment when victims pay up to protect themselves or their children from online bullying and abuse.”

Topix hosts the Pioneer Press’ comment pages at twincities.com, but Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson isn’t among the signees. Her office didn’t respond to two calls and emails for an explanation. However, PiPress web boss Chris Clonts says that his staff retains direct control over taking down abusive twincities.com comments and does not charge any kind of fee.

Topix — a joint venture of media giants Gannett Co., Tribune Co. and McClatchy Corp. — has accused the AGs of grandstanding, and notes the $19.99 fee is a way to “jump the queue” of free review. Company CEO Chris Tolles says it normally takes four days to take down a piece of Internet poison, while the double-sawbuck gets it done within a business day.

Given that the company’s business model is comments, you might expect them to devote a bit more cash to monitoring so it doesn’t take nearly a workweek to take down the junk. But that assumes your business model is defensible comments, not any garbage that could attract a page view.