Editor's Views: Changes to website mean fewer but better comments

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Scott Angus
Saturday, November 2, 2013

The loudest and most consistent complaints about our website, gazettextra.com, before we changed to a new format in late July involved reader comments at the ends of stories.

In the old world, we allowed anyone to comment anonymously, and people by the hundreds took advantage. Our stories generated about 5,000 comments a month, and many of them were less than tactful.

In fact, many were downright nasty. Some were untruthful.

The system was in place for more than five years, and I consistently heard from critics through the years that the comments on our site were unfair and unethical and a poor reflection on our community.

We did our best to monitor comments and remove those that violated the policy posted below every story that called for accuracy and civility. To be honest, though, we didn't have the resources to keep up, and we relied on readers to flag comments that were over the line.

It was far from a perfect system. For years, critics asked us to make changes or eliminate comments altogether.

Finally, with the new site that we introduced July 30, we took a huge step toward improving the quality of comments. At the same time, however, we saw the volume drop precipitously.

Under the new system, only subscribers to The Gazette and gazettextra.com can comment. They can still use fake names, but we know who they are, and they know that we know. That has had a significant impact on the tenor of comments. The system also eliminated trolls who jump from site to site and throw bombs into conversations to generate reactions.

In general, comments are more constructive and less inflammatory. That's a good thing. I'm not as thrilled with the big drop in the number of comments. We knew they would fall, but the statistics are startling.

On active days before the change, the site generated hundreds of comments a day. Under the new system, the most active day produced 52 comments, and we've seen more than 40 only a handful of times. Overall, we average about 25 per day.

Why should we or anyone care? First, we want activity on our site, and we want users to provide content through their comments. People in the community know things that we don't, and they can provide valuable insight or ideas on important issues.

Before the Internet, we talked, and people listened. That's not how things work anymore. We want our website to be a conversation with our readers, and we need their voices to make that happen.

Beyond that, the numbers of comments to some degree reflect traffic on our site. While our overall numbers aren't down by the same percentage, we did lose visitors when we began charging for access. We knew that would happen, and we're still happy with the bottom line at gazettextra.com. Our goal, however, is to gradually build traffic, and that should lead to more comments.

For now, however, I hope the people who had issues with the comments on the old site are reasonably happy with the change and the types of comments we're getting.

The conversation on gazettextra.com might be smaller than before our site and policy changes, but it's better.

Scott W. Angus is editor of The Gazette and vice president of news for Bliss Communications. His email is sangus@gazettextra.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @sangus_.

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