Like many newspapers, we had high hopes when we first allowed readers to comment on stories on our website.
We introduced the feature three years ago. At the time, I wrote about the potential. Never in our community’s history had people of different backgrounds, beliefs and interests been able to have these kinds of conversations about developments and issues.
It hasn’t worked out as well as we hoped.
Yes, the comments are popular. We get about 10,000 a month. And yes, they bring traffic to gazettextra.com and allow people to interact. We tally about 4 million pageviews a month on our site, and many are related to comments.
The nastiness, however, is too much.
We’re not the only newspaper struggling with the issue. Papers around the country are assessing comments and implementing or looking for ways to make conversations on their websites more civil.
Starting today, the Gazette is taking a step that we hope will at least partly address the issue. It won’t solve the problems, but we think it will cut down on the ugliness.
We no longer allow comments on stories that involve crimes, courts, accidents, race or sex.
We and other papers identified those topics as the most troublesome. The comments typically start out OK, but they deteriorate into insults, innuendo or otherwise offensive remarks.
Those of us who monitor conversations on gazettextra have found ourselves consistently removing comments from such discussions and ultimately disabling threads. People simply can’t or won’t behave.
This is the first in what I believe will be several moves designed to bring more civility to our online discussions. A new content management system planned for spring will give users more control over what comments they see. It might also allow users to rate comments and otherwise contribute to holding people accountable for what they say.
Currently, users can suggest removal of comments that they believe cross the line. We get e-mails when that happens, and we review those comments as soon as possible. That works reasonably well, but it requires 24/7 diligence on our part. That’s hard to provide.
A few papers across the country have eliminated comments. I don’t like that idea. The Internet isn’t a passing fad, and we must figure out a way to allow these conversations while eliminating or at least cutting down on the vitriol.
A growing number of papers require people to provide their names before commenting. I’ve resisted that approach because I believe it will cut down drastically on comments, and it’s difficult to prove that people are who they say they are. Some newspapers have developed creative approaches to identify users, though, and we’re likely to revisit that idea.
For now, though, we’ll stop allowing comments on some types of stories. We’ll continue to monitor comments on other stories and remove them when we think it’s warranted.
And don’t forget: You can write a letter to the editor for our print edition, which requires your name and community, or you can call our Sound Off line—608-755-8335—to make an anonymous comment for the newspaper.