The Boston Globe's recent decision to hire outside help to moderate its online comments, reported by Media Nation, is the latest event to prompt discussion on the different means news websites have in dealing with an overflow of readers' comments. The newspaper joined NPR and the San Francisco Chronicle as clients of ICUC Moderation Services, a Canadian company specialised in moderating online content.
Niemen Journalism Lab spoke to Keith Bilous, ICUC's president, about the benefits of outsourced comment moderation. According to him, hiring outside help both frees up newsroom resources and provides a possibility for a discussion about the function of readers' comments generally. "The focus is on getting more better-quality comments and conversation on sites instead of 'let's just get as much comments as we can.'"
Bilous noted that when it comes to improving online discussion, different companies have different objectives. No one wants to see potentially libellous comments on their website, but some questions, such as whether to audit comments before or after publishing them, have to be answered separately in each case.
Another issue is to recognise the types of articles that are likely to attract spiteful responses. Such content could be automatically closed for comments. Bilous points out that no matter what kinds of guidelines are adopted, the news outlet should be open about its policy and decisions.
In an interview with Future of Media, Bious commented on the question of whether reporters should take part in the discussion that follows their articles. Not all journalists share his view, but he sees it as an opportunity to improve on the quality of the discussion: "No question a comment community is more vibrant and responsive if someone who had written the story responded to their concerns."
The issue of readers' comments is one that all online news outlets have to face. On the one hand, two-way communication is surely here to stay, so websites would do better to make use of it the best they can. After some initial resistance, online news sites have mostly come to regard comments as a useful resource. Furthermore, interaction with readers is essential if a site wishes to cultivate something resembling an online community. There is a sound argument, after all, that the community of readers should be seen as an essential part of the publication rather than something external to it.
On the other hand, it is understandable that news corporations have strong reservations about opening doors for potentially defamatory comments. For example, NPR has struggled lately to smarten up the comments on its website. It is also logical that news sites may not be willing to dedicate a lot of in-house resources to moderation, as it does not directly contribute to their core functions.
Perhaps one reasonable option would be separating comment moderation and participating in the discussion from each other. This could be done by outsourcing the "dirty work" and, given that resources allow, having reporters and other content producers engage with commentators. Knowing that the worst filth has been filtered out would probably encourage writers to interact with their readers.
Based on ICUC's situation, outsourcing comment moderation definitely seems to be a trend: the company, which has been developing online content solutions for nine years, has now 78 clients, ranging from newspapers to such brands as Unilever and Intel. "With all the volume of content continue to weight down publishers, the future is very bright for us," Bilous said.
Image source: CNN