By Gary Graham
Newspaper managers and editors strongly support online comments about their daily content and most are unlikely to ban comments, but that doesn't mean they are satisfied with the quality and tone of comments.
An APME Sounding Board survey of newspaper editors, publishers and online editors in April drew 101 responses and 94 percent of the group reported that they consistently allow comments. Many of the respondents said they believe allowing comments is important to encourage community discussions in a public forum.
Editors were critical of the general nature of comments because, in their view, comments are too often negative, off the topic, uninformed and lacking civility. Several editors said a small number of individuals tend to dominate the online conversation.
Asked how likely is it that their organizations will ban online commenting, 71 percent said it is unlikely and another 11 percent said they never would. Nine percent said it is very likely they will ban all comments and another 8 percent said such a step is likely. While the majority of editors who responded said they are not inclined to eliminate all comments on their sites, many attempt to ban readers who consistently abuse the website's policies on commenting or ignore the standards altogether. One editor said the comments don't reflect poorly on the website and that editors should spend less time worrying about the nature of the comments.
Fifty-five percent of those responding said they place a moderate amount of value on commenting and another 14 percent said they placed a great deal of value on it. Editors said the comments are beneficial because they encourage an exchange of ideas and that readers often have suggestions for follow-up stories or point out inaccuracies.
The editors surveyed seemed relatively split on the issue of allowing anonymous comments. Fifty-four percent do not allow anonymous postings, but 46 percent do. Only 38 percent of the news organizations require commenters to identify themselves by first and last name. Several editors noted they restrict commenting to online or print subscribers.
More than half, 56 percent, use a comment-hosting service. Of those services, Facebook appeared to be the most popular with 61 percent of the editors using it, followed by Disqus with 21 percent. Only 12 percent of the editors report the comments are monitored by staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Twenty-seven percent monitor comments 13 to 16 hours a day, while 15 percent monitor only two to four hours daily.
Editors who only allow commenting through Facebook said the Facebook emphasis on using a first and/or last name has resulted in a slight improvement in the level of community conversation, but others noted many commenters don't seem concerned about the lack of anonymity.
Several editors who responded said that in a time of diminishing newsroom resources they are concerned about the amount of staff time required to moderate the comments. One editor requires that all comments be reviewed and cleared by an editor before they are posted on the newspaper's website.