Not fifteen years ago, if a news consumer wanted to get in touch with a reporter or the rest of the community concerning an article in the paper, he or she would put pen to paper and send off a letter to the editor's desk. That letter would be screened by the editor of the newspaper and, most likely, thrown into a trash bin never to find a place on the op-ed page. But with the advent and increasing popularity of newspaper websites, any person can comment on just about any article, and many can do it with little thought, moderation or the need to identify themselves.
Such unfettered commenting has led to what William Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at Columbia University's journalism school, called a "brawl."
"A lot of comment boards turn into the equivalent of a barroom brawl, with most of the participants having blood-alcohol levels of 0.10 or higher," he said to the New York Times.
These threads run hundreds of comments long and often stray off-topic or turn nasty. Though most comment threads are equipped with the option for users to flag questionable content, as the discussion loses direction, offensive comments can slip through the cracks. In response to out of control comment threads, newspapers have gone so far as to shut down commenting capacity until they were able to clean up the threads.
This was the case with Yahoo News, which shut down its comment boards in 2006 for a three-year hiatus because the comments were seen to detract from the site's reputation.
"The feeling as I understand it was that it was degrading the quality of the site rather than enhancing it," Mark Walker, head of the North American branch of Yahoo News, told paidContent.
In 2009 it re-launched commenting capacities, allowing readers to respond to articles directly below and vote up and down comments. Their system also includes what paidContent called "seven levels of 'technical comment moderation.'"
Yahoo's decision to shut down comment boards was generally accepted without much chagrin, but other newspapers--like the Washington Post--have come under fire for their decision to do away with comments.
After publishing a controversial post on the Washington Post's Omblog about Jack Abramoff's political donations, former ombudsman Deborah Howell encountered a flurry of negative and often nasty comments that backlogged the comment section to an unmanageable extent. In response, the web editors at the Post shut off comments for a period of time and later attributed the disappearance of all offending comments to a technical error, writes Bubble Generation's Umair Haque.
Former executive editor of Washingtonpost.com, Jim Brady, defended the decision to temporarily shut off comments and said that the negative quality of the comment thread helped the site to rework its policies.
"With this experience under our belts, we're going to need to re-evaluate how many people need to patrol these new areas, what hours they need cover and how they deal with problematic posters," he told PressThink's Jay Rosen. Brady also mentioned improving the technical filtering capabilities of the comment system as an important focus for their improvements.
But most website editors agree: comment boards have too much potential to get rid of them entirely. The comments on an article offer journalists a valuable link to their readers, where readers can guide coverage, point out mistakes, and sometimes offer valuable tips and sources.
"Online, for the first time in my career, I developed eye-to-eye relationships with readers," writes Guardian new media columnist Jeff Jarvis on his blog, BuzzMachine. "And I learned to respect the knowledge, intelligence, goodwill and good taste of those I saw as a mass."
He adds, "Interactivity isn't just a gimmick. It is a key to a new journalism."
Interactivity is key because news media is a business; newspapers must listen to their readers if they are to keep them as consumers. Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander acknowledged the financial necessity of commenting in a recent post, stating that the "goal is to dramatically build online audience, and robust commenting is key to increasing visitors to the Web site and keeping them there as long as possible."
But how can editors ensure that the comments add rather than detract value from the article? News sites and blogs across the web have tried a number of different strategies, but the rules and regulations for online commenting are still in their formative stages. Across the comment boards, there seem to be four overarching themes in comment moderation that will likely shape the future of online commenting: Timing, trust, identity and incentives.
Timing: Moderate early and often
Jarvis likens a completed article to a castle once it's been built--after the queen and king retreat inside and ignore the commoners on the outside, what's to keep the commoners from blasting the castle walls with mindless graffiti? Jarvis is a proponent of opening up articles to comments from their earliest stages, and offering a moderating influence from the get-go.
"When instead we open up to conversation earlier in our process then the conversation can become more collaborative and productive," he said on his blog. "We ask people what they know, which is a mark of respect and value. We listen to advice and requests."
Scott Rosenberg, one of the founders of Salon magazine and writer of the tech and media blog Wordyard, emphasized the importance of creating the right atmosphere on your comment thread--a process which begins early and never ends.
"The early days of any online community are formative," he wrote. "The tone set by early participants provides cues for each new arrival."
But someone must actively make an effort to set that tone--comment moderation cannot be a passive, mechanized activity, says Cincinnati.com comments editor Mandy Jenkins. She suggests that a good moderator "regularly participates in discussion, responds to questions and, most importantly, will give warnings publicly when they are needed."
"Moderators need to be actual people with a presence in the conversation, not faceless wielders of the "delete" button," Rosen writes.
And Robert Niles, a developer of multimedia journalism and writer for the Online Journalism Review, points out that the comments page of any article offers one of the few unique advantages of any paper: the chance to talk directly to, and hear back from, journalists in an intimate way.
As Rosen puts it, it's time for newspapers to "end our separation from the public and join it."
Trust: Your readers know what's going on
Interspersed throughout the reams of negative comments are often a few gems--pointed witticisms, elucidations of a complicated point, or commenters even defending each other. Doug Feaver, former executive editor of the Washington Post, wrote that these moments restored his faith in the potential of comment threads.
"I am heartened by the fact that such comments do not go unchallenged by readers," he wrote on the Post's website. "In fact, comment strings are often self-correcting and provide informative exchanges. If somebody says something ridiculous, somebody else will challenge it."
Jenkins seems to believe that the strong presence of a moderator will embolden the commenters to stand up for themselves and each other.
"Other members will band together to fight off a troll - or defend a friend they feel was wronged," she wrote.
But to create this protective atmosphere, comment threads have to feel like a community. Members must appreciate and respect--and to some extent, feel as though they know--their fellow commenters. When early moderation ensures that the chat remains consistent and focused, commenters will feel as though they have a responsibility to the group of which they have become such an integral part.
Identity: Anonymity or aggregation?
Much of the recent debate over online commenting has revolved around the commenter's identity--or lack thereof. Anonymity has long been a controversial topic, but the recent decision of the Cleveland Plain Dealer to reveal the real identity of a commenter on their website has prompted scathing criticism, widespread praise, and a lawsuit. But the debate over anonymity is not so black and white--there are appropriate times for anonymity, and an appropriate alternative to using one's real name.
Mathew Ingram, a writer at tech blog GigaOm and former communities editor at the Daily Globe and Mail, noted that comments are like democracy. "Most people," he says, "support democracy," despite all of the muck and nastiness that often comes of it, and the same can be said of commenting.
"And just as anonymity has a broader purpose in a democratic society -- whistleblowing, for example...and keeping a check on arbitrary authority," he explained, "I think it has a purpose in comments and online communities as well."
In a previous post on the Daily Globe and Mail's web site, he cites some other reasons for anonymity aside from whistleblowing--the possibility for identity theft, threats or stalking, or the potential for employers or family members to find controversial comments on touchy subjects. But the most convincing argument for anonymity is the difficulty behind ensuring someone is using their real name or e-mail, as such a large-scale venture would require most newspapers to have staff solely dedicated to checking and evaluating the identities of commenters.
Many people across the web see the solution in what French online media consultant Bruno Boutot calls "aggregated identity." This means that a person's online identity does not need to be their identity in reality but it needs to be consistent across the internet.
"It's not really important that I know who Shelley456 is when she comments," Ingram writes, "but if she is Shelley456 everywhere she comments, then she has devoted some time (theoretically) to establishing that identity, and therefore will be less likely to destroy it by spewing Nazi hate in some online comment board."
Some have suggested the use of Facebook Connect or OpenID to ensure that users keep a consistent identity throughout the web. Currently, WashingtonPost.com requires users to sign in with Facebook Connect to view the site, and then sign in yet again to comment. A well-moderated comment thread that creates a sense of community coupled with aggregated identities a cross the web offers users a safe space for engaging discussion.
Incentives: Keep them coming back
Adding thoughtful comments to an article is a labor of love. Readers generally do it out of goodwill, in hopes that they will help the journalist report a better story or offer another reader some context. But in some cases, offering both physical and psychological incentives to readers can spur them not only to comment, but to comment well.
Tech website Engadget offers giveaways to readers who comment rather frequently, and has thus far given away freebies ranging from a Nerf gun to headphones to a Motorola Droid. All readers must do to enter for the giveaway is comment, but Engadget usually offers a question to answer to spark conversation in the threads.
Nonprofit investigative journalism start-up California Watch has offered its readers iPods in the past, but to win the iPods, commenters had to be the best of the crop--the wittiest, smartest, or most unique. These two options offered readers a reason to start a conversation and a reason to offer high-quality comments, both aspects of a successful comment board.
Other incentives involve offering commenters bragging rights. Many sites, including Gawker and the Washington Post offer a tiered commenting system, with trusted commenters (defined by whether they subscribe to the newspaper, how long they've been commenting on the site, or the decision of the web editors) showing up first in the threads and new commenters only shown when a person clicks to reveal them. Other sites, like the Huffington Post, offer readers the option to rate comments and sort them by rating, so users can read the highest-rated comments first.
If readers are likely to get priority on the page or commendations from other readers, they will make an effort to add something worthwhile to the discussion. Incentives will prevent the comment thread both from gathering dust and from degenerating into chaos.
The Future: Old ideas executed in a new shell
Websites big and small are revising their commenting strategies in the wake of the recent controversy surrounding anonymity. Journalists are increasingly irritated by long threads of useless and occasionally offensive comments that may even serve to scare off sources. And readers themselves become sick of the slog through muck in search of a worthwhile gem on the comment boards.
It is clear that newspaper editors must not only take control of their commenting policy, but they must also publicize it. They must engage in the comment boards to guide the discussion from the beginning, and trust that their readers will take responsibility for the boards if they feel that they are given outside support. Newspapers must try to keep commenters using a persistent identity across the web, and offer them incentives to enter the discussion and add to it constructively.
If commenting is to online news what democracy is to the countries of the world, there is much to be gained by opening up articles to reader response. At its fledgling stages, democracy had wrinkles too, but it also offered much potential for all parties involved--and commenting is likely to do the same.