While others shut down comments, the NYT says it wants to expand them

If there was a ranking of popularity for online behavior, internet comments would probably wind up somewhere just below pop-up ads or auto-play videos. Seen by many as a haven for trolls and spam, a number of sites — including Popular Science and Bloomberg — have gotten rid of them. But there are still those who believe allowing readers to comment is a worthwhile endeavor, and the New York Times appears to belong to this group: instead of getting rid of them, the paper says it plans to expand comments and invest more resources in them.

Community editor Bassy Etim told public editor Margaret Sullivan that in contrast to some other organizations, the Times sees the readers who leave comments on its site as a “celebrity class” of users, and wants to give them more features and recognize their contributions. How exactly it plans to do that isn’t clear, but Etim also said that the number of Times stories that are open to comments will also increase — from an average of about 20 each day to more than twice that (opinion columns are almost always open to comments).

Unlike many of the other organizations that have chosen to kill off their comments — including Re/code, Reuters and The Week — the New York Times apparently doesn’t believe that social-media networks such as Twitter and Facebook can take the place of reader interaction directly on the Times site. As I’ve tried to argue before, the fact that those tools exist should be seen as an addition to traditional commenting, not a replacement for it. In addition to the Times, sites like Quartz, Medium and Gawker have been experimenting with ways of improving comments rather than killing them.

Those are real readers

One common argument made by sites that have chosen to kill their comments is that the people who post comments aren’t a publication’s “real” readers, and/or make up such a small proportion of the readership that they don’t really matter. Bloomberg’s online editor Joshua Topolsky, for example, said that the site would not have comments after a redesign because the number of people who would be served by them was so minuscule:

“You’re really talking about less than one percent of the overall audience that’s engaged in commenting, even if it looks like a very active community. In the grand scheme of the audience, it doesn’t represent the readership.”

This kind of comment ignores a number of things, however: One is that an active community of readers should never be ignored, even if some of them behave badly from time to time (and in fact that kind of behavior only increases if you ignore them). And the second is that even if the number of people who comment is low, the number of readers who pay attention to comments is arguably a lot higher — given the traditional social-media rule of thumb that says 90 percent of people read or lurk, with only one percent taking action.

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New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, who spent part of her column discussing the problems that readers have with the NYT’s comments — including having comments not show up, or not being able to post them because a story has already been closed to new comments — said she believes that comments are a key part of the newspaper’s relationship with its readers. While the Times system is not perfect, she said, “reader commenting is one of the best ways for The Times to stay close to its readers and what they care most about.”

Comments have value

The NYT isn’t the only major publication that believes comments have value: Aron Pilhofer, the head of digital for The Guardian in London — and the former head of the digital team at the New York Times — said at the recent News:Rewired conference that he believes media organizations who choose to shut down their comments are making a huge mistake:

“I feel very strongly that digital journalism needs to be a conversation with readers. This is one, if not the most important area of emphasis that traditional newsrooms are actually ignoring. You see site after site killing comments and moving away from community – that’s a monumental mistake… readers need and deserve a voice. They should be a core part of your journalism.”

The audience-development team at the Times is said to be working on a number of potential enhancements to the commenting function at the paper, changes that are expected to build on some earlier features and experiments with added functionality — such as the introduction of “verified commenter” status. Verified commenters are selected by the Times based on their previous behavior and can post comments without having them be moderated before they appear (the paper has a moderation team of about 13 people).

As I argued at the time, the verified-commenter feature could have been the first step in getting some devoted Times readers to “level up” or become more involved in a community of readers at the paper, a relationship that could then be monetized in a number of ways. The Times is also a partner — along with a number of other media organizations such as the Washington Post — in a project being run by the Mozilla Foundation, called The Coral Project, which is building an open-source platform for reader interaction, including comments.

mesh media keynote: Chris Thorpe

If you’re interested in the future of media, you’re going to want to be at mesh 2010 on May 18 and 19 for our media keynote: Chris Thorpe. Chris comes to us from The Guardian, one of Britain’s leading newspapers, where he is the Developer Advocate in charge of the paper’s Open Platform. This puts him at the forefront of one of the most fascinating frontiers in the media industry: namely, the transformation of traditional media entities such as newspapers into digital-information services that distribute their content in a variety of different ways online. And sometimes that involves experimenting too: an offhand remark during a lunch presentation by Clay Shirky, for example, recently led to the creation of a “ChatRoulette for news” called Guardian Roulette.

The Guardian’s Open Platform is based on an open API (i.e, application programming interface) similar to that provided by Google, Twitter, Facebook and other companies provide, which allows developers and programmers to use The Guardian’s content in a variety of ways, and build it into third-party services at no cost. The New York Times also has an open API, but it only provides access to a small part of the text in each story, whereas The Guardian’s provides the full text of every story.

In a blog post last year, British MP Tom Watson wrote:

I’m not bowled over much these days. But Guardian Open Platform is a chasmic leap into the future. It is a work of simplistic beauty that I’m sure will have a dramatic impact in the news market. The Guardian is already a market leader in the online space but Open Platform is revolutionary. It makes all of their major competitors look timid. Governments should be doing this. Governments will be doing it. The question is how long will it take us to catch up. (British MP Tom Watson)

Chris gave a presentation last year at the Future of Web Apps conference, which is embedded below, in which he talked about how The Guardian’s use of an open platform is “building the stacks of a mutualised newspaper.”

There’s also an interview with Chris here:

Interview with Chris Thorpe (The Guardian) from Publishr on Vimeo.

Anonymous Comments: Are They Good or Evil?

Updated: I enjoy a good debate about media-related topics pretty much any time, even when I’m supposed to be on vacation with the family in Florida. Today, in between playing shuffleboard and bocce and taking the kids to the swimming pool, I had a rousing back-and-forth on Twitter with Howard Owens — who was formerly with Gatehouse Media and is now running a local news site called The Batavian — about the evils (Howard) and virtues (me) of anonymous comments. Along the way, we sucked Steve Yelvington and others into the fray as well. Did we settle the issue? Not even close. In fact, I’m not sure it can ever be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

In a nutshell, Howard said that anonymous comments were an abomination (I’m paraphrasing somewhat) and were in fact unethical, since commenters on a news site had a “fundamental right” to know the identity of the other people commenting. I tried to make a number of points, including the fact that anonymity is a red herring, and that the more important thing in encouraging a strong and healthy community conversation is standards of behaviour, regardless of anonymity. I also tried to make the point that anonymity has its benefits, and that many people — some of whom might have valuable contributions to make — would never comment if they had to use real names (Howard made the point that allowing anonymity excludes other people).

Howard noted that his beliefs about anonymous comments come from “a vast body” of real-world experience, not just theories and supposition. While I may not have a vast body of experience, I spent several years dealing with comments at the Globe and Mail, where we routinely got 7,000 or more comments every day — and for the past year or so I was in charge of moderating those comments, so anonymity is something I not only have seen the downside of, but feel pretty strongly about (hence the debate). And I surveyed our readers about it extensively, so I know how many of them feel as well — in fact, I wrote a whole blog post about exactly that topic in 2008.

After I took the job as online Communities Editor, the first thing people said to me was “You have to fix the comments — they’re terrible.” And the second thing they said was: “We should make people use their real names. That would solve everything.” The first of those observations was arguably true, since the Globe and Mail comments were in many cases terrible. But the second observation was not even close to being true, or at least I didn’t think so. For one thing, I knew that there were some online communities that allowed anonymous comments and yet had pretty healthy comment boards, including Metafilter (one of my favourites) and Slashdot. (I’m not the only one to defend anonymous comments — a former executive editor of WashingtonPost.com did so as well, despite his earlier dislike of them).

The other thing I knew was that it is virtually impossible to actually verify someone’s identity online, unless you ask them for their social insurance (or social security) number, or their credit-card number. And while I have no empirical evidence to prove it, I have a pretty strong feeling that this would dramatically reduce the number of people who would be willing to comment (as would charging for the right to comment, which someone on Twitter suggested as a solution). And I believe that one of the principles of running a media site is that you should open up interaction to as many people as possible. Not that you don’t moderate offensive comments — far from it. In fact, I think moderation and engagement (as Steve Yelvington notes in this post) can make up for a lot of what Howard sees as the downsides of anonymity (a point Jim Lippard also made).

When I’m asked about comments, I often say that to me, comments and the ability to interact through them are like democracy. Most people support democracy and its various principles, even though in practice it is frequently ugly and brutal and betrays some of the worst elements of humanity for everyone to see (Winston Churchill said that democracy was the worst possible form of government, except for all the others). So it is with comments. And just as anonymity has a broader purpose in a democratic society — whistleblowing, for example (a point Topix CEO Chris Tolles made), and keeping a check on arbitrary authority — I think it has a purpose in comments and online communities as well.

As I mentioned during our debate, I think that persistent (and quasi-verified) identity agents like Facebook Connect and OpenID can help with some of the problems that online comments have — not necessarily “real” identity so much as persistent identity. It’s not really important that I know who Shelley456 is when she comments, but if she is Shelley456 everywhere she comments, then she has devoted some time (theoretically) to establishing that identity, and therefore will be less likely to destroy it by spewing Nazi hate in some online comment board. Sites that take advantage of persistent identity can become a little like World of Warcraft, allowing people to “level up” through good behaviour, relying on the fact that they won’t behave badly because they have devoted so much time to their virtual identities.

In any case, as I noted on Twitter, I didn’t pick on Howard because I wanted to start a fight over comments — I got into the debate because I think it’s an important issue and because it needs to be thought about and talked about if we are to get it right (and I’m willing to admit that what is right for Howard on his community news site is not what might be right for another news site or entity). Thanks to everyone who took part.

Update: John Bracken of the MacArthur Foundation wrote a post about this discussion, and so did Steve Buttry — who is director of community engagement for the new hyper-local Washington news site that Jim Brady is setting up for Allbritton Communications, and therefore is pretty interested in different approaches to reader comments. Steve’s post is here.

John Temple also said he is interested in the discussion — John is the former editor of the Rocky Mountain News and is now with Pierre Omidyar’s new Peer News startup, and his recent comments about comments started me thinking again about anonymity and how it is a red herring in online community. As Chris Garrett noted in the context of another discussion about online community, “pseudonym does not mean fake.” Jack Lail also has a post with a collection of links he has been putting together about online news site comments.

Has the WaPo chosen paper over web?

The recent cuts at the Washington Post — as reported by Politico and Washington’s City Paper — have once again brought to the surface a culture clash that has been going on in mainstream newsrooms for most of the last decade, and one that shows no sign of ending any time soon. If anything, the economic upheaval and advertising-revenue tsunami that has hit the media industry over the past year or so has amplified it. It’s the clash between print-heads and Web-heads, or “real” journalists (as some choose to call them) and the “web-first” crowd, and the fear expressed by some — including former WaPo online staffer Derek Willis and former online executive editor Jim Brady — is that the printies are gaining the upper hand.

You can see the fault lines of this snaking through the comments on the City Paper piece, where one commenter talks about how the website “was doing nothing more than posting the print articles, and hosting some online chats,” while the “much-despised MSM reporters and editors were crammed together into an old, crappy space while actually doing the business of obtaining information and writing it.” Another talks about how “All this bla bla bla about presentation, aggregation and innovation will be all that’s left once there are no more reporters churning out actual stories.”

Toward the end of the exchange, former WaPo online staffer Robert MacMillan (@bobbymacReuters) says: “I worked there and did reporting just like it’s done at any other news outlet. Saying otherwise reveals gross ignorance and demeans what I and the good people there have been doing for years” (MacMillan reported on the layoffs here). And in his post at True/Slant, former WaPo online executive editor Brady says “It’s the attitude of Stone Age commenters like these that still pervades far too many print newsrooms. Instead of attempting to adapt to what is clearly a digital future, they complain about the world collapsing around them, yet demean anyone who tries to do anything differently. And they wonder why so many people have stopped listening to them.”

This kind of us-vs-them animosity has likely been exacerbated at the Washington Post by the fact that until recently, the online operation was a completely separate entity from the paper, with its own management and executive and building — across the river from the newspaper itself. Many people both inside and outside the Post saw this structure as a positive thing, because it allowed each to focus on their core business. Others, however, saw it as prolonging the inevitable — the time when the two would have to function as one, which is exactly what the Washington Post is trying to engineer right now. And some, like Steve Yelvington, are afraid that this will wind up with the “printies” on top.

It may have been amplified at the Post by the company’s physical and corporate structure (and there has been speculation that Web staff were let go because otherwise they would have had to be unionized), but you can bet this same battle is going on at virtually every major newspaper in North America. Why? Because they are caught between two worlds. The reality is that the print side continues to provide the bulk of the revenue (although it is falling), and it also consumes the majority of resources — which means there are a lot of senior management involved, and to be blunt, many of them have empires to protect. Others have simply been slow to grasp the magnitude of the changes going on around them. And on the other side is the Web, which is growing quickly but is still a far smaller — and less profitable — operation.

How best to join these two things together? The fear about the Washington Post is that creative online and multimedia journalists have been cut loose in favour of newspaper loyalists who may have little or no clue about what working online really involves. Is it possible for print journalists to understand and adapt to the Web? Of course it is. I’d like to think that I and other former print journalists are proof of that. But you can’t just dump all the responsibilities of understanding digital media on someone who has spent their life making the newspaper work. That is a recipe for disaster.

Comment behaviour: How far is too far?

Updated:

Kurt Greenbaum has apologized for overreacting in his original response to this incident, although he doesn’t explicitly say that he is sorry for calling the school and indirectly causing someone to lose their job.

As someone whose job involves thinking about our social-media policies and our approach to comment behaviour, I’m always looking at what other newspapers and media outlets are doing, and today I came across a case that crossed a line — for me, at least — in terms of how to deal with problem commenters. It involved a vulgar comment made by a user at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s website, and the response by the site’s director of social media, Kurt Greenbaum.

According to Greenbaum’s blog post (which was mirrored on his personal blog), someone posted a comment on a story in which they used a colloquial or slang term for female genitalia. It was deleted, but then was reposted. Greenbaum says he noticed that the comment alert from WordPress showed that it came from a nearby school. So Greenbaum called the school, and they asked him to send them the email with the comment, which he apparently did. About six hours later, he says, the school called and said that an employee had been confronted and that he had resigned.

Am I the only one who thinks that doing this goes way beyond the normal course of editorial behaviour? Continue reading