Globe outsources online-comment screening

Carl Crawford actually has nothing to do with this blog post.

Don’t be a pr1ck. Carl Crawford is not dealing drugs in the dugout.

Those are two of the examples cited in the Boston Globe’s online-comments policy, a copy of which was obtained by Media Nation earlier today. In the first instance, people charged with deleting offensive comments are warned to be on guard for spellings of forbidden words that won’t get picked up by an automatic filter — in this case, changing the i to a 1 in prick.

In the second instance, “it’s fine for a user to say that Carl Crawford is a detriment to the team, but he/she shouldn’t say that he’s dealing drugs in the dugout.”

The policy was released along with an announcement that the job of tracking down and killing offensive comments has been outsourced to a company in Winnipeg. According to the memo from Teresa Hanafin, director of user engagement for Boston.com, and Bennie DiNardo, the Globe’s deputy managing editor for multimedia, the company — ICUC — currently moderates comments for the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate.com and for Gannett.

Other fun excerpts from the Globe’s online-comments policy:

  • “As a rule, we permanently disable comments on all stories about people who have experienced a personal tragedy, as well as all obituaries.”
  • “We also temporarily disable comments overnight for stories about immigration, religion, and religious figures. Commenting on these stories should be enabled at 7 a.m., and the stories should be given extra attention throughout the day so that we can move quickly if the comments degenerate.”
  • “Obscene text and profanities are not allowed. Remove comments that have harsh profanities, but it’s OK to leave those that are less offensive: ‘jerk,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘crap,’ ‘idiot,’ etc.”

It’s a jungle out there!

It’s good to see Boston.com taking online comments more seriously than it has in the past. But for genuine user engagement, the site should either screen comments before they’re posted, require real names or both.

To read the Globe’s complete online-comments policy, click here. To read my two favorite posts about comments, click here (Howard Owens on why real names should be required) and here (the New Haven Independent’s comments policy). The complete text of Hanafin and DiNardo’s memo is below.

Hi folks,

As many of you know, for more than a year now our copy editing staffs in all departments have shared a very important duty for Boston.com: monitoring the abuse reports that our users file when they find inappropriate comments on articles or in our forums. Helped by the Metro Desk coops on weekends and Boston.com interns in the early morning hours, these copy editors, led by Steve Morgan, have kept vigil on the comments for 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. Their work has been incredibly valuable.

But it also was work that we asked them to do in addition to their regular job duties. We’re happy to announce that we’re now employing a company that specializes in moderation to take over the abuse report monitoring.

The company, ICUC, is based in Winnipeg. It moderates comments for Gannett papers and SFGate.com as well as corporate clients, and receives high marks from all. They began their monitoring at 8 a.m. yesterday, and will watch our abuse reports 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They guarantee that they will deal with an abuse report within 20 minutes of its filing.

We have sent them our moderating policy (attached below) and have added specific examples of tone and language that we will not tolerate. Our producers and editors retain control over whether or not to enable comments for particular stories. In addition, there is a dirty word filter in our comments provider’s admin tool that always is a joy to edit.

During this initial startup period, they will be growing accustomed to the standards and folkways of Boston.com and the Globe. But if you notice anything amiss — perhaps a nasty comment that you reported didn’t get blocked — please don’t hesitate to notify either of us.

We’re very happy that we can take this burden off our copy editors and have this experienced company on board.

Teresa and Bennie

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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39 thoughts on “Globe outsources online-comment screening

  1. Laurence Glavin

    I’m an opera lover and almost two years ago, I attended a performance of an opera based on Henry James’s novella “The Turn of the Screw” by English composer Benjamin Button, I mean Britten. When I tried to post a reply to the Globe’s music critic’s review, the Globe’s automatic filter refused it because of the word “screw”. Duh. I guess I should have resubmitted it with the spelling ‘scroo’.

  2. M.J.Stevenson

    The Globe makes a nice effort, which most organizations aren’t willing to do. I’ve heard (unverified) that they zap troublemakers with spyware. Good for them.

    The Attorney General should really go after serious internet crime. It’s costing mega-$$$. Security concerns have become a drag on what should be -but isn’t- a fully-functioning web.

  3. Tom Mallory

    We looked into this and I liked ICU a lot, so no disrepect toward them, but I remain concerned farming this work out sends a message to staffers to not bother looking at the comments on their stories anymore, cutting off a key source of interaction with our audience.
    We’re going to try requiring real names and social media integration first, which will make some of our amazingly prolific commenters wig out but, we hope, will result in greater civility and even some restraint.
    An example of how active moderation works: We have a reporter named Gary Robbins who closely monitors all the comments on his stories. I noticed one trollish commenter said to another, “Let’s take this to a non-Robbins page so we can discuss.”
    Forums are another issue. We rely very heavily on volunteer moderators to police those.
    Tom

    ps A performance artist could read our banned words list out loud on stage and be hailed as a modern Ginsberg.

  4. Mike Saunders

    Dan, real names are fine for sites with well-moderated civil discourse – which is why the Gobe plans to use them on bostonglobe.com, the site that will be primarily Globe content.

    Live moderation? The answer is in the memo. It’s a tough job even with multiple sets of eyes, which is why they outsourced it, and having users wait for post approval absolutely kills traffic. Pre-approval is a non-starter.

    The free-wheeling nature of Boston.com comments spurs community involvement, and it’s just as fun to slam the mouth-breathing knuckleheads as it is to craft a thoughtful response. I’ve done both. I like having the option.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Mike: It’s possible that Boston.com is too big for prescreening to be practical. But there are no good reasons not to try real-name registration. There *are* bad reasons — keeping those page views up — and I suspect that’s a powerful motivating factor.

  5. Jenn Paluzzi

    I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to prescreen a site the size of Boston.com. For the CentralMassNews.com websites, we prescreen and, depending on the town and the stories on the sites on a given day, that chore is either a few clicks a day or a few clicks every five minutes.

    And God help you if you don’t post the comments within minutes. You’ll get multiples. And complaints that you’re somehow thwarting their free speech. I had people calling me on my cell during the acid spill in Grafton last week asking why I wasn’t posting comments on the story that was still in progress.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Jenn: Yeah, you’re right — Boston.com is too big for pre-screening. All the more reason to require people to register under their real names.

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  8. Mike Saunders

    Dan, keeping page views up is an absolutely WONDERFUL reason to not to require real names. There are loads of places on the site where people want the freedom to speak freely, the Love Letters column is a great example of that. It’s a primarily self-policing community where people adapt recognizable personas. Users offer advice and relate true experiences that they wouldn’t dare reveal under their real names, which is why Love Letters regularly gets upwards of 1,000 comments daily.

    The nice people-to-knucklehead ratio is pretty manageable, but that’s not the case on stories about crime, politics, race, abortion, and other hot button issues. This is still Boston, after all. Presenting a heavily sanitized dialog probably isn’t entirely reflective of the real feelings of some segments of the community. Give mouth-breathers a place at THAT table, where they can get hammered for their stupidity, but keep the conversation elsewhere on a higher plane.

  9. Mike Saunders

    Dan, we’re all a little more savvy than that. We can juggle different online personas and have different voices for different situations. Talk to your students and ask whether they selectively reveal information in one place that they wouldn’t in others. People like the freedom to be complete A-holes in one place while being respected community members in others. Real life is like that, Dan. The corner bar isn’t the corner office.

    Real names works in your playground, and makes the tone here quite a bit more civil than other online venues. Compared to come comment sections, it’s the online equivalent of an elderly aunt’s parlor, missing only the lace doilies on the chairs.

    Again, read back to my first reply. There’s an understanding that there’s a place for the well-moderated civil discourse that you seek….

  10. Stephen Stein

    For me, the short answer is that the Globe won’t accept anonymous letters to the editor, so why should it accept anonymous comments on Boston.com?

    I think an exception should be made for Suldog, though. I know three guys named Jim Sullivan, and he’s not one of them, as far as I know. But there’s only one Suldog.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      For me, the short answer is that the Globe won’t accept anonymous letters to the editor, so why should it accept anonymous comments on Boston.com?

      Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner. @Stephen, come on down!

  11. Mike Saunders

    @ George: “Why bother having online comments if Boston.com isn’t even going to moderate them?”

    George, they are actually moderated, but not to the degree that some would like, and they’re not prescreened.

    – “The original idea for comments is for the writer to engage actively with readers. It is supposed to be an exchange of ideas and view points.”

    Absolutely wrong, sir. It’s equally important for readers to engage actively with other readers. (see the 1,000-plus comments per “Love Letters” post)

    – ” Since this doesn’t go on at Boston.com – what’s the point of comments? Especially anonymous commenting?

    Most newspapers simply get commenting wrong:”
    – link —

    Please read above, where I say there’s a place for both.

    Both your linked post and those from the two sites Dan posted make valid arguments…that definitely apply to small-scale operations. Dan prescreens his comments, but the time until a comment appears can be hours (as in the case when I made my initial comment). George, you say you’ve only had to delete one comment in X number of years, but that’s out of what, maybe dozens? Hundreds? Going back to the posts Dan made, the New Haven Independent and the Batavia paper likely have weekly site traffic that amounts to about 14 minutes of Boston.com visitors.

    Prescreening isn’t feasible on a site as large as Boston.com, not unless you’re content with killing off a significant portion of site traffic. The moderation there can certainly be better — and it looks as if that step is being taken — but completely giving up anonymous comments is a non-starter.

    But again….the Boston.com isn’t — and intentionally never has been — the Globe, and vice versa.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Mike: Boston.com wasn’t the Globe originally because there were other media partners: Boston magazine, NECN, Banker & Tradesman, to name three. No longer. What is it today if not the Globe’s website?

  12. Mike Saunders

    Dan, Boston.com is still an amalgamation of content: from the print version of the Globe, self-produced by Boston.com staffers (slideshows, etc.), and assorted third-party stuff (NECN video, sports video, bloggers, etc.)

    There’s a solid percentage of traffic that is generated by non-Globe content. In the Venn diagram of Boston.com content, the Globe would be the biggest of three circles inside one large one.

    So, the rules have always been different — which is why B.com can run a slideshow of Patriots cheerleader tryouts online that would never fly as a photo essay in print.

    But I don’t think any of the commenters here are wildly off the mark. There IS a place for the kind of sane, reasoned exchange of ideas…which is why the proposed Globe website — bostonglobe.com — was supposed to have both registered users and comments with real names. And doilies.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Mike: It’s an opportunity lost if Boston.com, by contrast, is going to be the place for an insane, unreasoned exchange of non-ideas.

  13. George F. Snell III

    Hi Mike:
    Thanks for your responses, but I’m still in disagreement (although appreciate your participation). Wish the Globe did the same in their comments section.

    I’ve had nearly 2,000 comments to my HighTalk blog – not counting the thousands of spam – so you’re right in that I’m not at your scale. But I’m one man band. You’re a orchestra.

    You need community management. People from Boston.com – and your writers – engaging with people in the comments section. That’s how you keep things civil – with supervision and interaction. If you just want readers talking with each other – open an online forum.

    It’s not the Globe’s job to manage or enable other people’s multiple online personalities, but to keep the debate and discourse on its site reasoned, smart and civil. Comments should be an added value to the news story – not a place for it to be cheapened and mocked.

    Right now it is an anything goes, polarized bash fest that benefits no one – least of all the Globe.

  14. Mike Saunders

    George,

    I truly think we’re all in agreement, that there needs to be a place for civil, smart, moderated interaction that elevates the discussion. The free-for-all can certainly get ridiculous, especially on hot-button topics.

    Yes, there needs to be a place for that, which is why it will likely be a key feature of the new Bostonglobe.com, the name of which should reinforce the distinction that Boston.com isn’t the Boston Globe, and vice versa. They’re completely different animals.

    The whole point of outsourcing moderation is to whittle down some of the nonsense, so there’s an understanding that it needs to be done and they’re spending money to do it. Boston.com comments will probably get tighter moderation, but not to the extremes of Batavia and New Haven. Pre-approval would cut traffic like a guillotine, and traffic is king. It’s really not feasible for a site with any significant size.

    Re: writers engaging: I know that most writers check back over the comments on their stories, but there’s really not much time in the day to police comments, nor do most writers have the access to actually edit them.

    I want to clarify something, though: these are my own opinions and observations. I left the Globe at the start of the year, and I don’t presume to speak for them.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Mike: Until you checked in here, I hadn’t realized the Globe was considering different commenting policies for Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com. Frankly, it strikes me as an incredibly bad idea. The brand is the brand is the brand.

  15. Mike Saunders

    Dan,

    The idea that “the brand is the brand is the brand” would makes sense if Boston.com and the Boston Globe were, in fact, one and the same. Perhaps that widespread misconception is part of the reason for distinguishing them as different entities with different audiences.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Mike: Misconception? Good grief. It’s how people experience the site. If your opinion is any indication of how people think at 135 Morrissey Blvd., then it sounds to me like the Globe does not understand its customers.

  16. Mike Saunders

    Sigh.

    Dan, visitors experience online Globe content within the wrapper of Boston.com, as they do with NECN weather video, and lots of the other aggregated content. With a site that big, visitors use it for various reasons.

    Back to your original point: You’re suggesting much tougher moderation of content, which Boston.com is doing, and you’re advocating real-name posting, which, AFAIK, Bostonglobe.com intends to do. They’re trying to add value to comments, which is what you and other critics suggest.

    What part of “Yes, you’re right” are you taking issue with?

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      What part of “Yes, you’re right” are you taking issue with?

      The idea that the free Boston.com site should remain a cesspool of anonymity.

  17. Mike Saunders

    The (currently) free and generally well-moderated New York Times site is anonymous but not a cesspool. Anonymity can be preserved without resorting to traffic-killing nanny state tactics.

    Interesting story in today’s Poynter Online: http://bit.ly/ij2dHe

  18. Aaron Read

    @Mike: I hate to say it, but Dan’s right. What you suggest would be if WBUR tried to distinguish all its local programming as being COMPLETELY SEPARATE from the national NPR programming. It doesn’t because:

    A: It wouldn’t work.
    B: It’d be counterproductive.

    Moreover, the lack of distinction between NPR The Brand and NPR The Media Company is something people have both used, and been used by, for years. Nobody knows, or cares, that “This American Life” is *NOT* an NPR show; it’s a PRI program. Ditto for “On Point” which is NPR, but produced at WBUR, and “Here & Now” (which airs right after OP on WBUR) which is PRI, but also producted at WBUR. Or that Car Talk might be recorded at WBUR but it is not a WBUR show or owned by WBUR in any way.

    Hell, most listeners STILL don’t get that when you call 888-WAITWAIT or 888-CARTALK, you are NOT going to be put live on the air while you’re listening; all calls are recorded to voicemail and the shows call you back while taping (Wednesdays mid-day for Car Talk, Thursday evenings for Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me)

    The branding surrounding Boston.com and the Boston Globe is IDENTICAL. Nobody, except perhaps the wonks on Morrissey Blvd, makes any distinction between the two. And any attempt by the Globe to create an artificial distinction will only confuse the readers and dilute the brand.

  19. Aaron Read

    Actually, I don’t “hate to say” that I agree with Dan. Most of the time, I agree with him and rather like it. :) But I don’t mean to smack you down, either. It’s just that this is Marketing 101, here.

  20. Stephen Stein

    Heh. I remember when Car Talk was a WBUR show, not NPR. And you called in “live”. That was a frighteningly long time ago.

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  22. Jim Sullivan

    And I guess maybe that answers his question about whether or not Suldog is one of the Jim Sullivans he knows (if, indeed, it was a question, and if, indeed, I’m one of the three Jim Sullivans he knows.)

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