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The reader commenting saga continues

The nature of reader comments on newspaper websites has increasingly become a problem over the last several years. Ranging from off-topic comments to abusive and insulting, deviant readers have taken advantage of the cover anonymity has provided. Increasingly, however, newspapers are taking a stand.

Either by monitoring comments with an iron fist or by making readers take accountability for themselves through identification, newspaper editors are saying no more. While the push to stop abusive commenting has been going on for some time, newspaper publishers are increasingly getting into the game and quite a few are using Facebook to counter these verbal attacks.

The San Diego Union-Tribune recently instituted Facebook commenting, which makes readers sign into their Facebook accounts before allowing them to comment. Uniquely, the New York Times recently overhauled its commenting system, giving a special status to “trusted” commenters. According to Poynter, these readers have the luxury of having their comments go live instantly. All other comments are reviewed by a moderator before being published. Still, the trusted commenters are required to provide personal information, including a Facebook account.

Meanwhile, the O.C. Register and Gannett properties have also have set up Facebook commenting. According to reader engagement editor Dennis Foley, the Register has noticed a definite drop in nasty comments. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t mischief makers out there. “I think we’ve deterred some of them and discouraged others by going through Facebook, and I think some of them are still around and are laughing up their sleeves at annoying and bedeviling us,” he said. “It’s more of a game to them – it’s all about ‘how much trouble can we cause,’ which in an anonymous system was quite a bit. In a system that is less anonymous, not as much.”

Terry Eberle, editor of the News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., noted a 30 percent drop in traffic since August when the paper started requiring readers to sign into Facebook before commenting. But the loss had been expected and traffic has slowly returned, he noted. So far, it’s been worth it. “The civility of the conversation has much improved. The name calling and uncivil comments has stopped. People are disagreeing with each other, but not making it personal. So that’s good,” he said. “We still have open communication, we still have free speech, it’s just done in a way that makes it more civil instead of a personal attack.”

The News-Press is one of several Gannett properties that tested the Facebook commenting system before the publishing company instituted it at other print and broadcast entities. Although 88 percent of News-Press’ readership has a Facebook account, Eberle noted that they may introduce another medium at some point to meet the needs of readers who aren’t on Facebook.

Not all papers have decided to go the Facebook route, however. In 2010, MaineToday Media closed off its comments completely, effectively quieting constructive discourse as well as violators. The papers affected were the Portland Press-Herald, the Waterville Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal. Meanwhile, others have chosen to support anonymity and deal with deviants in other ways. One such paper is the Plain Dealer, which is “embracing its anonymous commenters,” reported the Poynter Institute. The Pantagraph, which closed off comments for a “cooling off period” in late 2009, has also allowed readers to remain anonymous.

Since the Pantagraph’s 2009 warning to readers, the staff has controlled pages by being tough. If violators don’t heed warnings, they can get banned. To ensure that readers know the rules, a box on the comments page details the site’s commenting guidelines. And while the site still gets its share of abusers, it’s not anything like it was before, noted Pantagraph editor Mark Pickering. For example, several local stories on immigration recently received roughly 140 comments, and only about five or six comments had to be deleted, he noted.

A couple of times a week Pickering shuts down a story because he doesn’t like the way comments are going. “It only happens once or twice a week out of hundreds of stories, so I don’t call that a situation,” he said. “I still prescribe to, if you have a good monitoring system and you educate people, I don’t have a problem with them remaining anonymous as long as they play by the rules. Because a lot of the time what they have to say is interesting and can be helpful, and it creates a public debate.”

Despite the different tactics being taken by newspapers, the idea is the same: abusive commenting has to stop. Foley likens the situation to a cocktail party. “If someone is getting loud and obnoxious and saying harmful things, as the host, you would either quiet them down or ask them to leave. But if they’re being disruptive you won’t let them stay.”

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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