Wednesday, November 30, 2011

To Be, or Not to Be -- Anonymous (Updated. See bottom)

 As some of you may know, anonymity, particularly anonymity in comments at The Mercury web site, is a bit of a hot button issue for me.

But I thought some of you might like to know that how on-line comments are dealt with at The Mercury, and at all JRC papers for that matter, is not a settled issue.

To their credit, the company elders are still wrestling with best way to get the best comments, the best insights and the best discussion out of our readers who, evidence suggests, have an awful lot to say.

Twenty minutes ago, I finished participating in a chat on Twitter about ways we could improve.

In the interests of transparency, I have provided the link here to where that discussion has been preserved. If you care about this issue, I invite you to read it.

To be clear, I am an unabashed advocate for getting rid of anonymous commenting, but I am in the minority I think.

I understand the value:

1) News and views from others who might otherwise fear retribution.

2) Helpful news tips and ways to improve a story.

3) Hey, Hamilton and Madison wrote the Federalist Papers that way.

4) Sometimes, removing the who from an idea gives it better consideration as it removes a perceived agenda.

And you know what? I agree with all those reasons.

My problem? That good is far, far, far outweighed by the overwhelming nastiness and personal attacks that can occur only when you don't have to take responsibility for your words.

At The Mercury, we "moderate" comments, which not all papers do. That means someone has to approve comments before they get posted and yes, (revelation No. 2) I am one of those people who is allowed to approve or delete comments.

And contrary to what you might think, I am one of the most liberal about it.

Although I don't agree with anonymity, my approach is that if it is our policy to allow a free-for-all, only most egregious comments get deleted by me.

We also have a policy of deleting comments if people complain about abuse, although some of our "public figures," i.e. elected officials, candidates, appointed officials, etc. don't always realize that comments critical of them are fairer game than for others.

But even that can get out of hand.

This June, anonymous comments at one JRC's Connecticut papers, the Torrington Register-Citizen, got so bad that one schools superintendent resigned over what was posted there.

(NO! I am not advocating this or trying to give anyone any ideas.)

Here is a link to our coverage of that issue and the discussion that followed.


But to the matter at hand, in this discussion there were a couple of useful suggestions that I thought I might share and see what you think:

1) Move anonymous comments to the bottom of the column and allow those who self-identify to take pride of place at the top.

2) Have a regular "best comments" feature.

3) Have reporters "engage" more with commenters on the web site. (Some of you know I already to this to some extent.)

4) Offer (non-anonymous) blog space to those who provide the most thoughtful comments.

5) Use Facebook or a similar system now being tested at one of our Connecticut papers, that encourages self-identifying commenting.

Most sites which have removed anonymous comments report much less traffic, but improved quality and return visits to their sites.

Certainly, newspapers that are struggling with circulation should be expected to exercise caution when doing anything that might reduce eyeballs on their web sites.

In some ways, the anonymous comments and Sound Off is akin to the axiom that a picture of a fire or twisted metal from a car crash sells papers. It is a guilty pleasure.

The problem is that unlike buying the paper, participating in beating someone up anonymously is not a consequence-free activity and, I think, should make you feel much more guilty.

In the long run, in my humble opinion, better comments trumps more comments every time, particularly if it builds loyalty and useful conversation, instead of just colorful conversation, which have in abundance in this town.

But it's not my opinion I'm after.

I already know what that is.

It's yours.

If you have opinions on this, post them or e-mail me at ebrandt@pottsmerc.com and I will report on the results in future posts.

I know this blog is new and does not get a lot of traffic, but this may be your best chance to have an impact on how on-line comments are handled at The Mercury web site, so have a go, let us know and share it with others so we can start a useful discussion.

P.S. An update! Click here to read about how The New York Times just re-vamped how comments are posted there.

9 comments:

  1. I like a "best" or "top" comments strategy because I think it promotes the most engaging and relevant discussion while still enabling all users to provide feedback. Letting readers rank comments can also make the posts more interactive.

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  2. IMO,anonymity in comments is trolling, death threats and down right meanness waiting to happen. When ppl comment on the Mercury Facebook page their face and real name are shown, it keeps ppl somewhat civil when expressing how they feel. If you let them be anonymous then they will express those same feelings only this time it will be in an unnecessary mean, harsh and even cruel manner. The key word here is UNNECESSARY. You can still say how you feel without being a jerk.

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  3. Although we allow anonymous posting on our blog, I have begun posting comments wherever I go in my own name. I also find the anonymous comments on the Mercury particularly vicious. And you may not believe it but there have been some very over the top comments that we have not published on The Pulse.

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  4. Not all identified commenters produce "quality" comments. Moreover, some quality comments are often produced by the anonymous. That said, I would prefer verifiable identification (via Facebook or some other contractor) rather than not.

    The most recent research I've seen regarding news site comments is that a majority of comments on most stories are offered by and also read by a limited and recognizable group of commenters. That's often true for The Mercury, and for The Post Publications too.

    So while comments may generate clicks, one measurement of website activity, they do not necessarily create growth in unique readership, a far more valuable indicator of website success.

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  5. I'll guess I'll add my two and half cents.

    First I don't envy your position, I've administered message boards and ran my own blogs (Wordpress, Drupal, etc.) and moderating and controlling comments is the worst job on the internet.

    I will never agree with the banning of anonymous comments. First off there really isn't a good way to ensure real life identities. Lots of methods have been tried and none are really that sucessful. Every site that has TOS still has people who will bend and break those rules. Look at Wikipedia and sockpuppets to understand just some of those issues.

    I think the best way to handle commenting is to let the technology do it's work. Wordpress has a lot of plugins that allow you to auto-control commenting. I would imagine at the Mercury there is a swear filter on the comments, take that a step further you can write software to deal with problem children and ban their logins or if needed their IP (this is very controversial though.)

    If you need examples of sites that handles comments the best (IMHO) take a look at Engadget and Kotaku. Kataku uses featured comments, the main article shows a featured comments section then a tab for all comments. Engadget uses a voting featuring to allow users to raise and bury comments they like and dislike. A combination of the two is the best way to go with software that auto-manages abuse.

    If you want to see a site that allows anonymous comments and works (IMO) go to TechDirt and take a look at what happens there, when someone acts like a jerk the regulars put them in their place. It may look wild west to you but it works for their site.

    I will add I understand your problem: You are running a newspaper that needs to be accessible by all (including the possibility of children) and you want to keep the place civil. I think it can be acomplished with my suggestions. But taking the approach of cutting off what makes the internet the internet is wrong. What I mean by that is people like approaching it their own way, some like real name and some like to build an online identity.

    Understand that some people like to build on online identity and take pride in keeping that online identity in good standing with the site they are on. You will always have the trolls, that's what makes the internet the internet.

    Lastly do not, whatever you do, make Facebook the sign on for any site. You can use at one means for signing in, it would ultimately be better to have a multi-sign on system. Right here on Blogger I can sign this comment a number of ways (Google Account, Livejournal, Wordpress, etc), that's the way to do it.

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  6. Evan, you have always been a professional journelest, so I know this issue is straight from the heart. If you recall, some time back we were downright slandered by an anonymous poster on the Mercury. Not only did it cost us reputation, it cost us time and money to undo. All because an anonymous poster took advantage of the system to spread a batch of lies in an attempt to drive us out of town. The result of such action is that business is venerable here. The reality is that an anonymous poster could put someone out of business in such a delicate economy simply by spreading untruths and fear.

    A publication may be concerned when eyeballs drop from page views, but what will they say when businesses are driven from town by anonymous posters and stop advertising altogether?

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  7. I would like to share the text of a letter I wrote last week to John Paton, CEO of Journal

    Register Company. The subject line of the email was "Why I No Longer Subscribe to The Pottstown Mercury":

    November 22, 2011

    Mr. John Paton
    Chief Executive Officer
    Journal Register Company
    Lower Makefield Corporate Center
    790 Township Line Road, 3rd Floor
    Yardley, PA 19067

    Dear Mr. Paton:

    I have lived in Pottstown, PA for the past 18 years. For a good majority of those years I was a paid subscriber to your Journal Register owned
    daily newspaper, The Mercury. I am no longer a paid subscriber and I would like to share with you why.

    I can no longer read your publication due to the continuous and ongoing nasty and degrading
    comments posted online on a daily basis.

    Let me share with you two examples. My wife Amy recently helped organize an Occupy event in
    downtown Pottstown. Two Mercury articles appeared in the print and online editions. Both
    articles have spawned close to 60 online comments (as of this writing). The vast majority of those comments are mean, bullying and downright nasty. Here are links to the
    two articles:

    'Occupy' arrives in Pottstown (currently 18 comments)

    'Occupy' movement coming to Pottstown (currently 38 comments)

    I'm wondering why Journal Register does not use Facebook for their online comments?

    I recently read that Gannett now requires Facebook for posting comments. Even the neighboring Reading Eagle, the major daily newspaper of Reading, PA (which has a daily circulation of 64,000 and a Sunday circulation of 100,000) requires online comments to be done via Facebook.

    Using Facebook will allow for higher quality discussion and a far less amount of anonymous
    comments.

    I know of many, many Pottstown residents who are disgusted with The Mercury and refuse to
    read/subscribe to the newspaper due its daily dose of mean-spirited comments.

    I would ask that you consider using Facebook for online comments to greatly reduce the
    amount of trashy comments that The Mercury approves and publishes on a daily basis. I always go out of my way to support businesses in Pottstown, but I will never support The Mercury as long as it gives these reckless comments and their authors an online platform for their hatred.

    Thank you.

    Julian Francis
    249 Chestnut Street
    Pottstown, PA 19464

    And here is the text of the response I received from Mr. Paton:

    Mr. Francis,

    Online commenting is, for sure, one of the most contentious issues in journalism today.

    There are no easy solutions and nothing else to do but to work hard to find one which is

    what we are doing.

    I have asked JRC VP Jon Cooper to look into the matter you refer to specifically and report

    back on what actions, if any, we might take. I have copied Jim Brady, JRC's Editor-in-Chief

    on this email as well as Nancy March the editor of the Mercury and Ed Condra the Senior

    Publisher responsible for PA.

    I thank you for bringing this matter to my attention.

    Sincere regards, John Paton.

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  8. There are a number of residents in the 1st and 2nd wards that have collectively become known as the Golden Cockroaches. Our blog site is geared at making public the shame of the slum rental property owners wherever they own property in Pottstown. There are other resident homeowners on the "fringe" that are also fighting this battle and speak up when they can on the Mercury comments. Particularly when "goodmom" comments. Her threats and convoluted manipulation are scary and because of the nature of our fight we will stay anonymous but we admire the few who are outspoken and up front with their opinons of slumlords. There is a need for anonymity for all the reasons that have already been stated here and in the Mercury.

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  9. Evan, Facebook or Disqus integration with The Mercury's on-line comments would help to tone down much of the hostility on display there, although it wouldn't eliminate it completely. It would be nice to see some meaningful debate for a change.

    Back in April, I posted on this very same topic: http://codebluepulse.blogspot.com/2011/04/anonymity-is-killing-pottstown.html

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