GateHouse papers ban anonymous comments

Anonymous commenter reacts to new GateHouse policy
Anonymous commenter reacts to new GateHouse policy

Friday update: MetroWest Daily News columnist Julia Spitz offers her take.

Yet another major news organization is fighting back against the scourge of anonymous, hateful comments. GateHouse Media, a national chain that owns about 100 newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts, is now requiring readers to use their real names and log in via Facebook or LinkedIn. The new rules kick in today.

Here’s how the reason for the new policy was explained in the GateHouse-owned Patriot Ledger of Quincy earlier this week:

For some time, we’ve received complaints that the anonymous commenting system we’ve hosted on our online stories does little to enhance the conversation within our community. The criticism has been that some of the comments are hateful and sometimes, downright objectionable. We heard you and we agree.

Most of GateHouse’s Massachusetts papers are community weeklies, but there are also a few medium-size dailies — most prominently The Patriot Ledger, The Enterprise of Brockton, The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and The Milford Daily News.

The new policy pertains to all of GateHouse’s properties, which include more than 300 daily and weekly papers, according to a tweet from Nicole Simmons, regional digital editor for GateHouse Media New England.

In discussing the new policy on Facebook this week, I’ve seen praise for the decision to banish anonymity and criticism for relying on third-party services such as Facebook and LinkedIn. My sense is that the new policy is a step in the right direction, and how well it works will depend on the willingness of local editors to engage with their audience.

In other words: better some places than others.

Cohasset selectmen back off

The Cohasset selectmen have backed away from their plan to subpoena The Patriot Ledger of Quincy and its sister paper The Cohasset Mariner in an attempt to find out whether town employees have been posting offensive anonymous comments to the two papers’ websites, according to a report by Patrick Ronan.

The papers are part of the GateHouse Media chain.

Still at issue is a former selectman who’s pursuing a libel action against two anonymous commenters, and who subpoenaed the Mariner in an attempt to find out who they are. According to an article published on the Ledger and Mariner websites, the papers turned over the information as requested.

According to Ronan’s story, town officials have decided to wait and see if the libel suit reveals that any of the comments in question were posted from town computers.

Cohasset selectmen seek to muzzle commenters

Cohasset Town Hall
Cohasset Town Hall

Something very strange is going on in Cohasset, according to The Patriot Ledger of Quincy and an affiliated weekly, The Cohasset Mariner.

The Cohasset selectmen, according to reports in both papers, are engaged in a snipe hunt to ferret out the identities of anonymous commenters to the Ledger and Mariner websites. The papers are owned by GateHouse Media, a national chain that owns about 100 newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts and publishes websites under the name Wicked Local.

Town officials have gone so far as to consider a subpoena to the two papers to force them to turn over the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses of some particularly unhinged commenters to see if they are using government-owned computers at town hall. (Each computer on the Internet has a unique IP address.) Such activities, the selectmen say, would violate town policy.

Last Thursday, the selectmen canceled a meeting when their lawyer was unable to produce a draft subpoena for their consideration. But, in a parallel action, the Mariner has reportedly received a subpoena from a former selectman who has filed a libel suit against two anonymous commenters. In a sidebar to a Ledger story that also appears on the Mariner site, there is this:

GateHouse Media has complied with the subpoenas to the Cohasset Mariner and released the IP address and emails related to those screen names in accordance with its privacy policy.

There’s a lot going on here, but let me offer a few observations.

• The selectmen are way out of line in even thinking they can demand that the newspapers turn over identifying information so that they can punish their own employees. I hope GateHouse officials will stand firm if they receive a subpoena demanding such information.

• The libel suit is an entirely different matter. Under federal law, website operators are not liable for content posted by third parties such as anonymous commenters, according to the Digital Media Law Project. But the commenters themselves are not immune from libel suits or other actions, and website operators may be compelled to help those bringing suit find out who they are. It doesn’t sound like GateHouse did anything out of line in turning over IP and email addresses, though I would certainly like to know more.

• The First Amendment is one thing; best practices are another. Though GateHouse has every right to let anonymous commenters vent in public, such behavior has an effect on the newspapers’ brand and reputation. GateHouse should put an end to anonymous comments (as Media Nation did several years ago) — or, at the very least, screen all comments for taste, offensiveness and libelous content before allowing them to be posted.

Finally, though GateHouse reporter Erin Dale seems to be doing a good job of covering her employer’s own story, this cries out for some outside scrutiny. I’d love to see The Boston Globe dig into this.

Further reading:

Photo (cc) by ToddC4176 and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Commenting on Media Nation

Harvey Silverglate’s provocative post on the Aaron Swartz case has brought in a number of new commenters. If you don’t see your comment posted, it’s because you did not use your full name, first and last. Please see this and feel free to resubmit.

Naming names

I’ve seen an uptick in anonymous, pseudonymous and first-name-only comments recently. Some of them are really good, but I won’t post without a real name, first and last — clearly spelled out when you try to post. Here is the full Media Nation comments policy along with some of my reasons for implementing it.

In some cases, it may just be a matter of how you registered with WordPress. (Note: Registration is not necessary.) If you think that’s you, please read this.

WordPress.com members and comments

If you are already a WordPress.com member and have logged in, you’ll find that submitting a comment is very simple. But if you are not using your full name in your WordPress profile, then I can’t approve it. (In the case of a few people who have submitted comments using their real names in the past, I’ve done it for you.)

Assuming you don’t mind using your full name (otherwise, why would you by trying to post something at Media Nation?), there’s a simple solution. Go to your WordPress settings and click on “Public Profile.” Now you can change your “Public Display Name” to your full name.

When bad reviews lead to worse comments

Negative reviews leading to death threats and rape threats? That’s what they’re claiming at the film site Rotten Tomatoes, where comments to reviews of the new Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises,” have been turned off, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The hateful rants show how difficult it can be to keep online conversations on track. I’m not a movie buff, and I rarely visit Rotten Tomatoes, so I don’t have an opinion regarding the way comments are monitored there. But editor-in-chief Matt Atchity told the Times that he had seven people moderating “Dark Knight” comments before he finally pulled the plug. Click here for Atchity’s message to readers.

Atchity also said his next step may be to integrate the commenting system with Facebook, which is probably a good idea. A lot of news sites have found that Facebook comments tend to be more civil, which no doubt is related to the mindset people are in — they’re checking in with their friends, they’re sharing pictures of their cats. And, of course, they are usually using their real names, complete with pictures of themselves.

Earlier this year, the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site widely admired for the way it uses comments to enhance its coverage, ran into a crisis that led it to shut down commenting for two weeks. When it reopened, it was with new, stricter policies. (See this and this.)

Engaging in a conversation with your users is necessary and useful. If they don’t feel like they’re part of your site, they’ll go somewhere else. But doing it right is not easy.

On gay marriage, real names and a real discussion

Howard Owens

I’ve long been an admirer of Howard Owens’ real-names policy for online commenters. It’s one of the reasons I adopted it for Media Nation a couple of years ago. So I was intrigued when he tweeted this morning, “When you manage your comment community correctly, you can run a poll on gay marriage and have the convo remain civil.”

I clicked through to his community-news site, The Batavian, in rural western New York. As I write this, 1,501 people had responded to his survey question: “Do you support gay marriage?” About 45 percent said “yes” and 55 percent said “no.” And Owens was right: I couldn’t find a non-civil comment among them.

What I found was an engaged and engaging discussion (with a bit too much esoterica on states’ rights for my taste), with Owens himself making occasional contributions — an important part of keeping the online conversation on track. Given the volatile nature of the topic, I asked him if he pre-screened the comments or had deleted any after they were posted. His answer: no, and no. Impressive.

I’m not entirely opposed to allowing anonymous comments. At the New Haven Independent, for instance, editor and founder Paul Bass argues that teachers, police officers and other stakeholders wouldn’t dare express their thoughts if they had to reveal their identities. The Independent is often held up as a model of community engagement.

Yet the Independent runs off the rails from time to time, and earlier this year Bass had to tighten up his guidelines — including requiring real-name registration, though anonymous commenting is still allowed.

I can’t say it enough: News organizations have to find effective ways to engage with their users. Just because it isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. (You may thank me later for the triple negative.)

New Haven Independent reboots its comments engine

Following a hiatus of nearly two weeks, the New Haven Independent has brought back reader comments — with new rules that founder and editor Paul Bass hopes will restore civility. Here’s my latest for the Nieman Journalism Lab.

In New Haven, a crisis over user comments

I’ve written a piece for the Nieman Journalism Lab about the New Haven Independent’s decision to suspend online comments. The move, by Independent founder and editor Paul Bass, is pretty dramatic, as his site is often looked to as a model for how to handle comments the right way. An excerpt:

So should the comments resume? I think they have to — they’re too integral a part of the Independent’s identity. Civic engagement has been on the wane for years, and it’s not enough for journalism merely to serve the public. As I wrote for The Guardian in 2009, news organizations need to recreate the very idea of a public by encouraging a sense of involvement and participation. At least until recently, the Independent did a remarkable job of doing just that. But clearly something changed.

Read the whole thing here.