If you’re not doing comments right, you shouldn’t do them at all

Maybe it’s time your newspaper reconsidered its Web site’s commenting policy.

If the same group of people are dominating the discussion and ganging up on newcomers who aren’t part of the clique, maybe it’s time to reconsider your policy.

If flame wars are frequent, sock puppets obvious and informative discussions rare, maybe you need to reconsider your policy.

If you cringe every time you see a new comment has been posted on one of your stories, maybe it’s time to reconsider your comment policy.

Those among you who have followed my career for any length know I’m an advocate for comments on news stories. I believe conversation and news are two great tastes that go great together, like beer and chocolate or peanut butter and apple.

And while I’ve noted that comments can help increase page views, I’ve never advocated comments purely as a cheap way to drive up banner impressions. To me, it’s always been about building community.

Unfortunately, for many newspapers, comments are more like the mother-in-law who won’t shut up at Thanksgiving dinner. She seems necessary, after all she brought the pie, but she really isn’t very entertaining and sometimes offensive. And she’s probably the main reason your sister and her family decided to stay with her husband’s parents.

If you aren’t managing your comments well, you’re doing your newspaper more harm than good  Your advertisers question the wisdom of associating their brand with yours — at least the smart ones do — and your readers are questioning your professionalism.

This issue came up on the Online-News discussion list this week, so I know many newspapers are struggling with comment management at the moment. It also came to a head this week in Batavia, where the Daily News was hit by a particularly ugly comment thread in which a socket puppet attacked fellow elected officials, one politician is posing as a defender of said politician, and a community activist brought to light unfounded allegations against a city councilman (I won’t dignify the charge by repeating it here, and because I know these people, it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s who).

I don’t bring this up to bash my competitor — in fact, I rejected (so far) the idea of discussing this issue on The Batavian for fear it would come across as petty — but the struggles the Daily News has with comments (and granted this is something new for them) illustrates a point that has implications across the industry.

If you allow behavior in your comments that would never fly in your news columns, even your letters to the editor, is your comment conduct really ethical?

Just because the law protects you from libel claims arising from comments on stories, should you really allow libelous statements to stand, especially when submitted anonymously?

Here’s how you fix your comment policy:

  1. Assign one person on staff — ideally, make this a full time job — to be community site manager. This person will participate in the community, both online and off and be known as a person of authority and friend to the community.
  2. Require every writer to read and respond to comments on his or her own stories. Journalism online is more than a "I publish and you read" job. Reporters need to be part of the conversation. This leads to more civil discussions and more fruitful discussions.
  3. Require real names. This is hard to enforce perfectly, but not impossible to make a consistent feature of your site.  The smaller the community – where reputations can be broken so quickly — this is especially important.  People will often say anonymously (you’ll note none of the garbage in the Daily thread has appeared on The Batavian) won’t they won’t say when people know who they are.  Real names also serve as a check against sock puppetry, which has no place in a local community site.
  4. Act swiftly to remove libelous statements. The law doesn’t require this, but journalism ethics does.  This is also why you need a pro managing your comments.  All kinds of grey areas arise when deciding what comments to delete, and even after more than a dozen years of managing online communities, I’m not sure I always get this right.
  5. A subtext to all of this — make sure the community knows you take the community conversation seriously and expect it to be productive.

If you’re unwilling or unable to take these steps, you should seriously consider turning off comments. They are likely doing your newspaper more harm than good.

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