Thursday, September 15, 2011

How to Make Comments Engaging

By Weston Gentry

If you aren't convinced that world peace is unachievable, read the online comment's section of a newspaper sometime.


Digital news has advanced the journalism profession in some ways, but constructive dialogue isn't one of them.  Anonymous verbal brawling is commonplace.  Some news agencies have even chosen to suspend comments rather than making an attempt at moderation. (see: Greeley Tribune & Portland Press-Herald)


Jack Lail, Director of News Innovation for the Knoxville News Sentinel moderated an afternoon session Wednesday that discussed what media organizations are doing to remedy the incivility and even leverage comments to their benefit.


The first panelist to speak was David Arkin, Executive Director of the News and Interactive Division for GateHouse Media. In January of 2011, GateHouse launched a real-name registration comment system for its 90 dailies, 289 weeklies and many more locally focused websites.


"Editors were frustrated with the ugliness and time management issues concerning their comments," he said.


The GateHouse model varies in specificity from paper to paper, but functions under the assumption that users are less likely to make inflammatory comments if they are forced to use their actual identities.  The strictest version of the policy requires a phone number, address, city, state, zip code, birthday and gender in order to post a comment.


This idea is not a new one, but new to the online product.


Arkin compared the verification system to a traditional letter to the editor. Most newspapers still continue the practice of authenticating a contributor's identity by phone before printing their letter, but that thoroughness seems to have been compromised in the digital age.


Less than a year into its existence, Arkin deemed the model a success even though he admitted that comments have dropped by an average 10 to 20 percent. On the positive end, he said the registration hasn't affected site traffic.


The second panelist, Bobby Burton, President of 24/7 Sports based in Brentwood, Tenn. said comments are essential to his business model.


"Comments are baked into our DNA," he said. "I look at comments a lot differently than some newspaper people have traditionally."


Burton left, a subscription based, Yahoo-owned sports recruiting website a year ago to form 24/7 Sports. His company now manages conversation-heavy, "affinity sites" for 34 college teams and one pro football team.


Like, 24/7 relies on interactive message boards.


"The forums are actually where people hang-out when we're not publishing news," he said. "They are spending time on our website while our writers aren't actually writing anything."


Burton believes that 24/7 improves on the model he used at Rivals.  In its first year, 24/7 generated some 50 percent more user-generated content than he expected. Also, his workforce is more streamlined because he requires writers to moderate their own content.


"It's a rule in our company that a reporter is responsible for his own discussion," he said.  "It's not a manager's job to edit the comments it's a reporter's job."


To conclude the panel, Director of the Engagement for the Journal Record Co. and social media guru, Steve Buttry offered a defense of user anonymity.


"Right or wrong anonymity is the culture of the Web.  But it is also the culture of journalism," he said. "For crying out loud, 'Deep Throat' went 25 or 30 years without being identified."


Buttry argued that identity verification would preclude some government officials, members of the military and others from participating.


"Anonymity frequently results in more lively discussions," he said.  "There are things beyond wanting be an anonymous asshole that restrain people from wanting to talk."

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