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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.

New Haven Independent suspends comments

The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit, online-only news site, has long stood as a model for how to handle comments the right way. Though editor and publisher Paul Bass allows anonymity, he makes sure that every comment is screened before it’s posted. His comments policy begins: “Yes we do censor reader comments. We’ll continue to.”

So I was pretty surprised to learn a little while ago that Bass has suspended comments in order to give him and his staff some time to “catch our breath” and think about how to handle a deluge of nastiness — a deluge that he says has been on the increase since last fall’s contentious mayoral campaign. He writes:

The resulting harsh debate made me wonder: Is this the long-awaited new dawn of democracy and accountability we thought we were helping to help spark in New Haven by launching the Independent in 2005? Or are we contributing to the reflexively cynical, hate-filled discourse that has polluted American civic life? Are we reviving the civic square? Or managing a sewer with toxic streams that demoralize anyone who dares to take part in government or citizen activism?

What precipitated the hiatus, Bass explains, was a particularly hateful comment that somehow got posted even though he thought he’d zapped it. (It’s gone now.)

The city’s daily newspaper, the New Haven Register, has had its own problems with hateful, racist online comments. The new editor, Matt DeRienzo, vowed shortly after his appointment last summer that the Register would begin screening all comments — a system that is now in effect.

The idea behind comments is to build a community around the news through a multi-directional conversation. Though community and conversation remain worthwhile goals, nearly 20 years into the online-news era it remains far from clear as to whether online comments are the best way to do that.

Wednesday follow-up: Matt DeRienzo has written a smart reaction piece, asking, among other things, “How can the community be part of your journalism if you don’t even allow them to comment on what you do?”

How to drain the cesspool of news-site comments

I’m speaking to Professor Nick Daniloff’s Journalism Ethics and Issues class at Northeastern University tomorrow. Since the topic may be of general interest, I thought I’d post the slides in advance.

Media Nation’s top 10 posts of 2011

Clif Garboden

I’ve seen several bloggers list their most-viewed posts of 2011, which made me curious as to which Media Nation posts were accessed most frequently.

I’m not sure exactly what it says — most Media Nation readers simply look at the home page or read it via RSS or email. By contrast, those who click on a specific entry are led there via another blog or social media, which means they comprise a different sort of audience. For instance, according to Google Analytics, the Media Nation home page received 199,143 page views between Jan. 1 and yesterday, whereas the number-one individual item (on radio talk-show host Jay Severin’s return) was accessed just 6,257 times.

In any event, here is my top 10 for 2011.

1. Jay Severin returns to Boston’s airwaves (Aug. 16). This is one of three Severin-related posts in my top 10, which I find puzzling. I didn’t give him a lot of space, and certainly no support. Yet not only did this item rise to the top, but it attracted 28 comments, many from Severin fans who don’t normally post their thoughts here.

2. A rant for the ages against corporate media (Nov. 18). James Craven of GateHouse Media’s Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin wrote a blog post ripping management for deciding “to cannibalize the paper” after he got word that he’d been laid off. The blog post was removed almost immediately — but not before I posted it.

3. Globe outsources online comment screening (April 12). An item on the Boston Globe’s decision to hire a Winnipeg-based company, ICUC, to screen and remove offensive online comments. The post includes several internal documents, including the paper’s complete online-comments policy.

4. Way out of bounds in New Haven (Jan. 26). The New Haven Register’s website posted an online poll asking readers “Who’s the hottest local female television personality?”, complete with photos available for purchase. The Register, under the direction of a progressive new editor since August, is now trying to reinvent its online presence.

5. Jay Severin is suspended — again (March 31). Like I said.

6. GateHouse Media parts company with Greg Reibman (Nov. 9). The debt-burdened chain’s most recent round of layoffs claimed Greg Reibman, publisher of the company’s Greater Boston papers and a respected, forward-looking executive. Check out his new blog, Village 14, about all things Newton.

7. Indies fight back against Patch (May 13). A number of independent local-news-site operators launched a campaign called Authentically Local. The project included a few of my favorites: the New Haven Independent, the Batavian and Baristanet, whose co-founder and editor, Debbie Galant, was the leader of the effort.

8. Clif Garboden, 1948-2011 (Feb. 12). A tribute to the late, great managing editor, photographer and conscience of the Boston Phoenix. Clif was simultaneously a caustic, profane social critic and an unabashed idealist — two qualities that I think are often found together.

9. WTKK fires Severin (April 6). Go figure. Yes, I understand that Severin has a lot of fans and detractors who are interested in reading about him. I’m just surprised at how many of them flocked to Media Nation.

10. Dialing up outrage in New Haven (Feb. 7). The nonprofit New Haven Independent found itself in the midst of a controversy after a custodian it quoted on turmoil within the police department was fired. The Independent crusaded on her behalf, and she was rehired. Commenters, though, were divided on how the Independent handled the issue.

New York Times upgrades comments with Facebook

The New York Times unveiled a new online commenting system today. Jeff Sonderman of Poynter and Chris O’Shea of FishbowlNY cover the changes pretty thoroughly — as does Chris Lefkow of Agence-France Presse, who interviewed me for his story.

The Times deserves a lot of credit for taking comments seriously enough to do a rethink. The centerpiece to its new policy is that “trusted commenters” — invitation-only contributors with a track record of being thoughtful and civil — will be able to post without pre-screening as long as they are willing to do so using their Facebook accounts.

Why does Facebook matter? Yes, it’s the social network that we all love to hate. But it also requires its users to provide their real names. And we’ve all become accustomed to behaving a certain way on Facebook.

We share our pictures, we wish each other a happy birthday, we send cheery messages to friends from high school whom we haven’t seen in years. All of this is the antithesis of the nutty, often racist comments that pollute many newspaper sites.

Comments matter. They can be a way for news organizations to establish a community and carry on a conversation with their audience. They haven’t worked out as we might have hoped 10 years ago. But that’s no reason not to keep trying.

Violence, art and the media’s responsibilities

Journalists from a number of Boston news organizations will gather this Thursday evening for a panel discussion about the media’s role and responsibilities in covering urban violence.

Part of the exhibit “Anonymous Boston,” which documents the lives of young murder victims and how the media covered their deaths, the discussion will be held at the Fourth Wall Project, near Kenmore Square, at 132 Brookline Ave. The panel is titled “If It Bleeds, It Leads: The Role of Media in Urban Violence.” I will have the honor of moderating.

The exhibit is the subject of this week’s cover story in the Boston Phoenix by Chris Faraone. As you will see, the families of murder victims say the loss of their children is often compounded by sensational, inaccurate media coverage and by hateful online comments.

The Boston Herald is singled out by several people as a particularly egregious offender. Morever, Joanna Marinova-Jones, the community activist who has overseen the exhibit, is in the midst of a libel suit against the Herald. Despite those facts (or maybe because of them), I’m hoping the Herald will accept our invitation for what is intended as a substantive, civil conversation.

Participants who have already confirmed include Boston Globe city editor Steve Smith, Bay State Banner executive editor Howard Manly, WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) senior investigative reporter Phillip Martin, El Planeta managing editor Marcela Garcia, pioneering African-American television reporter Sarah Ann Shaw and Faraone.

The event will take place from 6 to 8 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

Want to comment? Use your real name, first and last.

I’m not sure why, but I’ve been getting an unusual number of comments lately from people who don’t seem to realize we have a real-names policy, first and last, at Media Nation — even though the first thing you see in the comment box is “Have something to say? Your real name, first and last, is required.”

Here is our commenting policy in more detail. And here is an interesting post on the good results news organizations are having when they turn their commenting system over to Facebook.

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, and Bennie DiNardo, the Globe’s deputy managing editor for multimedia, the company — ICUC — currently moderates comments for the San Francisco Chronicle’s 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 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 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 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 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 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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