Comments about online story comments

In keeping with CEO John Paton’s policy of transparency, Journal Register Company is inviting employee input and debate on an overall company policy toward online story comments, in public, for readers, advertisers, etc., to chime in as well. CLICK HERE to see what’s been said so far, and to add your own comment.

I’ve recapped my two cents on the topic here, so that I could include some links as a reference point.

In Torrington, we have chosen not to require registration, and not to review comments by staff before they go up on the site:

If we view story comments as a “product of the newspaper,” an extension of our voice and our product, something that we control, of course it would move us in the direction of restrictions of all kinds.

Or it could be viewed as a new and different and separate platform – a community forum that stands on its own and operates under a different premise. In our case, that premise is that it is community controlled – the community comments and polices its own comments by hitting the “Report Abuse” button.

As Clay Shirky articulates in his book, “Here Comes Everybody,” platforms such as the popular photo-sharing site Flickr don’t interact with “their photographers” the way that a newspaper has traditionally interacted with a staff photographer. Instead of “increasing its managerial oversight over photographers” to solve a problem or gain specific content, it “(abandoned) any hope of such oversight in the first place, instead putting in place tools for the self-synchronization of otherwise latent groups.”

We take the extra step of having staff looking at comments as well and choosing to take offensive comments down, but they are doing it on basically the same footing as the rest of the community participants in the forum.

As for the work involved in reviewing story comments – shouldn’t our staffs be immersed in reading and interacting with these comments anyway? They are (not always, but for the most part) being written in response to and to supplement and to correct our attempts at community journalism.

It would be pretty arrogant and isolating for us to have all of this back-and-forth about our product all day long and not be reading and participating at every step of the way.

There are both big-picture and practical arguments against the requirement of registration.

At Journal Register Company’s content conference in Philadelphia last month, several speakers talked about how we can’t expect readers to follow the “read the whole paper in print” habit to a “read the whole paper online” habit. That’s why home page views are dropping in comparison to traffic on the interior parts of a Web site, individual story links, etc. Because readers are being referred via the personal news streams of their friends and acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter, and via Google searches on topics that are important to them, from “Justin Bieber” to “winter storm school closings in Torrington.”

So why should we expect or require that they go through the trouble of “registering” with our brand just to interact/comment on that particular story? Especially if they are faced with having to register with the 15 other sites that they visit on the same topic or another topic?

And to dissect it a little bit further, I might want to be identified as “Matt DeRienzo,” publisher of The Register Citizen and Foothills Media Group, when I comment about the industry or the company. But not if I’m going to comment about how much I hate the New York Yankees or how much I like Beyonce’s new music video.

Why are you so interested in forcing me to do so, or controlling how and when I do? If it’s a PUBLIC forum, why can’t I choose?

Regarding advance moderation of comments, I believe it would kill story comment forums because it would kill the immediacy of a back-and-forth debate as it stands now. Look at the time stamps on the comments we received on story comments themselves on RegisterCitizen.Com. 1:37 p.m. 1:39 p.m. 1:40 p.m. On local issues now, readers can respond to each other in almost-real time.

Finally, regarding the question of anonymity, I think “Common Sense” (think Thomas Paine) would tell us that of course there’s value in it and need for it, not to mention the near-impossibility of forcing true identification of Web commenters regardless of the system.

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