Fargo-based Forum Communications, which owns more Minnesota newspapers than anyone else and has struggled with commenting policies, is now distancing reader input from its stories and editorials.
Last week, Forum (which has papers in Duluth, Fargo-Moorhead, Willmar, Worthington, Bemidji, Red Wing and 16 other Minnesota cities) axed reader comments on each outlet’s specific site. The chain now pushes readers toward a separate Forum-owned site, Topics.AreaVoices.com.
Fargo Forum editor Matt Von Pinnon, who edits the chain’s headquarters paper and has been the spokesperson on commenting policy, explained the audience-authority moat thusly:
First, we are an information provider. While we value and believe in the arena of public debate, we don’t feel our audience that seeks information must be exposed to public opinions unless they want that.
Second, comments left on online stories are often uninformed, offensive and even downright mean.
Forum has tried just about every tactic to deal with reader input and vitriol. In early 2009, it threw open the floodgates and only policed violations that users flagged. In July, Von Pinnon announced that the newsroom would moderate every comment, acknowledging the resulting inconsistency and time suck.
In recent months, more publishers have realized they have to do something to avoid polluting their brand. Strib officials say they have stiffened their moderation — roughly akin to the Forum’s just-abandoned approach — though there are still spectacular fails like the fat jokes in this Margaret Anderson Kelliher item.
Forum’s new tactic creates something of a Mos Eisley Cantina where the rough characters gather and, initially, police themselves.
Von Pinnon was on vacation and unavailable for comment, but the editor’s note held out hope that “social networking tools” such as comment ratings would demote or even hide the most noxious remarks. This assumes people are motivated to rate — and that a majority of your commenters aren’t uniformed, offensive or downright mean.
Forum’s set-up most resembles one used by the Pioneer Press.
In both cases, the comments are not visible at the end of the original piece; you have to actively click through. (This is inconsistently true at the Strib.) Both sites promote positively rated comments. Both allow anonymous comments because they can’t really verify identities.
The big difference is that Forum owns its new rageaholic ghetto; the St. Paul paper contracts out hosting to a third party provider, Topix.net.
While St. Paul staffers monitor comments, they leverage Topix’s centralized, nationalized user database to block some indefatigably abusive users. I’d hope the Forum is doing centralize chain-wide monitoring, too; that would just be efficient.
For a user-centered site, though, Topics.AreaVoices.Com isn’t very user-friendly. For example, if you live in, say, Willmar, it’s hard to find that paper’s discussions, though the locations are buried in a tag cloud. Still, most readers will probably access the chatter directly from the originating story, so this might not be a huge problem.
By mid-day Monday, barely three working days after the linkage went live, 613 users across the Forum empire had registered as commenters. It looks like Forum papers aren’t linking every story to the AreaVoices site just yet.
Newspapers are often reluctant to clamp down on comments because they can reduce page views; estimates I’ve received over the years range from 4 to 7 percent of a site’s traffic. Having a separate comments site can create a new property on which to sell ads (though probably not for big bucks; I’m seeing Amp Energy Juice right now, which is appropriate. At least as importantly, they can remove an ad-selling roadblock on the main site.
[Hat tip: MPR’s Bob Collins.]