The New York Times rolls out a new commenting system today that spotlights reader contributions and grants special privileges to some.

The Times will invite any reader whose comments are consistently approved over a certain time period to become a “trusted commenter,” whose future comments go public immediately. Everyone else’s comments will be held for review by a Times moderator, as they are now.

“We wanted to both reward commenters who have this great track record with this additional level of privilege, but also try to experiment with ways we could get more good comments on the site faster,” explained Sasha Koren, deputy editor of interactive news.

Trusted commenters are labeled with a green checkmark icon and can post without moderator review.

Koren and Director of Platform Technologies Ben Gerst gave me a preview of the new features, which start rolling out at 6 p.m. Wednesday, and should be fully live across the site sometime Thursday morning.

The trusted commenter program is the most significant new feature, in my opinion. Those who join will have to submit and verify real names, a profile photo and hometown by connecting a Facebook account. (Some people object to using Facebook, so other identity verification methods may be supported later, Koren said.)

In exchange they get instant commenting, as well as a higher profile on the site. With a special “trusted” logo attached to their color photo and full name, they stand out visually from the other commenters who usually have an anonymous username and no profile photo.

This also positions the Times for bigger advances in the future. For instance, earlier this year I talked with Times CTO Marc Frons about his long-term goals for building social interaction into the website. It also could support a system that curates comments into something more than just isolated reactions to one story, like the Community Hub project from the Times’ beta620 lab.

Because this is the first overhaul of the Times commenting system since 2007, Koren said, it also includes a lot of smaller improvements that catch up to Web standards and improve basic functionality.

Some of those changes include:

  • Comments on the story page. Until now, readers had to click a “comments” link on an article to visit a different page with all the comments. Now the articles and blog posts will have comments beneath the text.
  • Reply threading. Readers can post a reply nested beneath an existing comment, encouraging back-and-forth discussion.
  • Easier sharing. Each comment has sharing buttons to send its permalink to Facebook or Twitter. This enables good comments to spread widely, and draw more people back to the article.
  • Staff interaction. New York Times journalists can reply to comments more easily, and readers will be able to filter comments to see which ones come from staff.

Other commenting systems have had some of those features for a while, so in some ways the Times is playing catch-up. But Gerst and Koren said this is just the beginning of a new phase of development.

“There is broad recognition within the newsroom as well as from everyone from the publisher on down that participation on our site from our readers is an important piece of our overall journalism,” Koren said. “Contributions from readers can enhance our reporting and coverage.”