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October 21 2010

17:00

No comment: The Portland Press Herald’s about face

The halcyon days of SnoodFan99 and other anonymous commenters briefly came to an end Tuesday, at least on PressHerald.com, the website for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. In an afternoon note to readers, MaineToday Media explained that it was shutting down online comments across its family of newspapers, including KJOnline.com and OnlineSentinel.com, immediately:

because what once served as a platform for civil civic discourse and reader interaction has increasingly become a forum for vile, crude, insensitive, and vicious postings. No story subject seems safe from hurtful and vulgar comments.

That was Tuesday. On Thursday, the Press Herald surprised readers by bringing comments back, using a different back-end system, Intense Debate. As the paper put it on Facebook, “Just trying to keep you on your toes!

Comments have been a longstanding source of complaint at newspapers. And this is an issue I have some personal experience with, having worked at the Press Herald for 7 years prior to joining the Lab. I emailed publisher Richard Connor to get his thoughts on the seemingly abrupt changes over the 48 hour period where it appeared Press Herald and other papers had abandoned reader comments. In an email Connor declined to go into specifics but said this:

We switched to a monitoring and content management system to control comment abuse. We halted commenting for about 24 hours as we made the switch. There are many monitoring systems. We are testing several others as I speak. This is a fluid situation not only for us but for all media. We believe we will find a system that will correct 80 to 90 percent of the problems that can result from a totally open commenting system which we had.

Intense Debate is a popular commenting platform, owned by the company behind WordPress.com. It offers moderation settings, comment threading, a points system and integrates Facebook Connect, Twitter and WordPress logins. Intense Debate may solve some of the paper’s commenting problems from a technological standpoint — but “vile, crude, insensitive, and vicious” comments are the problem, it will take more than a technology. Here’s two points I take from the paper’s decision.

A healthy commenting environment requires resources.

The Press Herald’s online staff, already tasked with building pages, editing news updates, Tweeting and posting Facebook updates, as well as creating multimedia, is also the line of defense for reader comments. In the past the staff relied on filtering software to block profanity or other flagged words, leaving the job of moderation with people, not an algorithm. It’s a job that could be all-consuming without any other responsibilities, as online producers could predict bad days in advance, namely any story touching on immigrants, gay rights, politics, crime or poverty.

Stop me if this is a situation that sounds familiar: Story on gay marriage/welfare/suicide is posted, anonymous commenters surge en mass to have their take and derail the discussion over the topic of the story onto something else entirely. For a small online staff (under a half dozen people) the sheer volume of responses can be difficult to manage, let alone deciding what’s acceptable under the commenting policy. For larger news organizations the solution might be to farm out moderation work or build a specialized comment system. By deploying Intense Debate the Press Herald and other sites will likely be able to better filter problem posts. But moderation, the act of applying a paper’s standards and defining the boundaries of readers speech to allow better dialog, takes people.

Why are comments on stories worse than comments on blogs?

The original question in all of this is that newspaper reader comments are out of control. But what is it that makes comments so much worse on traditional news stories than they are for blogs, even newspaper blogs? For three years I wrote a blog for PressHerald.com, and the comments on my posts there had little in common with those at the end of news stories anywhere else on the site. Instead of attacks or random tangents, blog comments stayed largely on-topic and at times were helpful in providing new information. Even when commenters called me out or questioned my work, it never got personal. Name calling was mostly played for comedy. This pattern holds true at many newspapers.

Why are the experiences so different? It could be that a blog attracts a different kind of audience — people already comfortable engaging with social media and maybe more inclined to civility. It could be because I jumped into the comments myself from time to time and tried my best to model good behavior. Or it could be because the voice of a blog — less newsy, more human and more conversational — sets up a better relationship with readers than traditional newspaper writing.

But maybe it’s also because, almost 20 years into the web’s history, online discussion still isn’t second nature to some newspapers the way it is for blogs or online-native news outlets. There are tools and policies available for encouraging better behavior, as places like Gawker and The Huffington Post have explored. And as we’ve reported here previously, in Gawker’s case the comments are going way up, even in a more restrictive environment.

In the end, news outlets each place their own value on reader comments. Is it the natural extension of the letters page? An experiment in connecting with readers in new ways? A way to drive up pageviews and ad impressions? There’s no one right answer, but in the end a news organization has to make sure its policies line up with its values.

September 07 2010

19:55

DocumentCloud Helps Newspapers Bring Transparency to Government

Since we last updated readers on DocumentCloud's progress, we've made it much easier to upload a lot of documents at once, and introduced a related documents search that uses data about names and places provided by OpenCalais to find documents that are probably related to the one you're looking at. We've also added a bit more contextto the data we help reporters comb through. Most of this work is happening inside the gates of the DocumentCloud workspace, but it is resulting in some lively reporting. For example...

Using Documents to Tell the Story

This summer, as the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals prepared to hear arguments in a challenge to the University of Texas's affirmative action policy, Texas Tribune complemented its coverage of the case with nearly 200 pages of annotated court documents, including the original district court ruling, the university's appellate brief, as well as that of the plaintiffs in the case.

The Las Vegas Sun incorporated quite a trove of documents into its series on hospital care in Las Vegas. Readers were invited to browse everything from Department of Health and Human Services reports to individual records, right along with the Sun's reporters. When they say that hospital-acquired infections cost the country $30 billion per year or account for close to 100,000 deaths, they back each number up with original documents.

The Columbia Missourian annotated the city budget and took a local blogger to task for exaggerating Columbia, Missouri's cash reserves.

When Texas Governor Rick Perry challenged reporters to find anyone who can out-work him, Texas Tribune posted the governor's May 2010 schedule alongside that of Florida's Gov. Crist, New York's Gov. Paterson and California's Gov. Schwarzenegger and invited readers to help them skim over a hundred pages of briefings, receptions and photo ops for stories deserving of a closer look.

The Washington Post supplemented its reporting on the cozy relationship between the oil industry and the federal agency assigned to regulate them with an annotated report on the prospects for "Moving beyond Conflict" between regulator and regulated. Their document cache also included reports outlining just how cozy things had gotten by 2008. As Emily Keller pointed out in Free Government Info, a transparency project, documents like these give more transparency to journalism itself.

New Features in the Testing Lab

We're also hard at work fine tuning the document viewer, transforming it into something that users could reasonably plug into a template with a narrower content column. Thus far folks have been stuck with a full page viewer. We haven't fully rolled it out yet, but we've worked with a couple of our beta testers to implement it already.

Iowa State has a new men's basketball coach, and the Des Moines Register included all 14 pages of his contract to their coverage of the finer points contained in it. Among the unusual clauses? Hoiberg can walk away if the university decides to increase academic standards for student athletes beyond the NCAA's minimum.

Meanwhile, at the Santa Fe Reporter, Alexa Schirtzinger opted not to publish tables of information right inside her story on elder abuse in New Mexico, but she did use her staff blog to share the data that she had such a hard time tracking down. An annotation highlights the numbers that showed her that New Mexico fields more abuse complaints per nursing home bed than any other state.

DocumentCloud watchers will notice that they posted the contract right on the same page as Randy Peterson's writeup instead of displaying the document in a full page. We'll be making tweaks like this a lot easier for all of our users. In the meantime, if you're skilled at the art of reverse engineering JavaScript, you can view the source of the Register's story (or the Reporter's) to see just how they toggled the sidebar or zoom on those documents.

August 31 2010

18:42

2010 INNOVATIONS IN NEWSPAPERS WORLD REPORT (8): INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING

2010-08-31_1937

INNOVATION’s director Warren Lerude writes in our last INNOVATIONS IN NEWSPAPERS World Report about how Las Vegas Sun is an example of investigative reporting done by a small newsroom.

Get the full report here.

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