Portland Press Herald Drops Reader Comments in Response to ‘Vicious Postings’

The Portland (Maine) Press Herald has shut down its reader comments section in response to what its publisher describes as “vile, crude, insensitive, and vicious postings.”

The policy change affects the PressHerald.com and the websites of the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel.

Publisher Richard Connor explained the decision in a brief letter posted Tuesday on the paper’s website.
(The link to the letter is not currently working, but a note on the site’s home page confirms that comments have been shut down. The Herald’s Facebook page also has some updates.)

Connor writes that the decision took “months of careful consideration” and was made to “protect the public, our readers, and the subjects of our stories” from “hurtful and vulgar” comments. Connor notes that comments may return in the future, but only if it is possible to hold contributors accountable for what they post.

The challenge of moderating reader comments has been drawing increased attention from news organizations this year. As comment traffic has increased, and (in some cases) staffing levels have declined, many organizations have found it difficult to effectively manage the community discussion.

The balance facing most news organizations is how to grow their online communities and encourage productive debate while minimizing the effort spent on managing a small percentage of “trolls.”

A variety of strategies are being tested around the country:

–National Public Radio announced last week that it had begun to outsource its moderation duties to free up staff members to “concentrate on doing what we’ve always intended — to use the comments for fostering intelligent dialog, finding potential sources, fleshing out story ideas and like.”

–The Grand Island (Neb.) Independent halted reader comments in 2009 and brought them back this year with a real name policy and stricter pre-moderation.

–In September, KSL-TV in Salt Lake City removed comments entirely from its site in preparation for developing an enhanced system that would “include removing anonymity, expanding moderation and prioritizing relevant comments.”

–In addition to having comment moderators, The Huffington Post turns to readers for help. In May, it began giving out “Moderator” badges to users who flag comments that the site ends up deleting.

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The Maui News banned comments in 2008 in light of “crude language, profanity, slander, threats and racism.”

–The Minneapolis Star Tribune typically allows reader comments, but turns them off on selected stories that are more likely to create moderation problems.

–The Las Vegas Sun now filters out anonymous comments from those that are verified, and removes them from the site after 72 hours.

–The Attleboro (Mass.) Sun Chronicle suspended comments for three months earlier this year. It reinstated them in July and began requiring real names and credit card verification.

–The New York Times instituted a “moderation desk” in 2007 that reviews all reader comments before they are posted live.

There’s clearly not a “one-size-fits-all” solution to managing a productive online community. But, there are a few core principles to keep in mind:

  • The community does need to be managed, and moderators need to be present, visible and involved.
  • A “real identity” mandate might seem like a solution, but requiring a ”persistent identity” connected to a verified e-mail account may be just as effective.
  • Technology is our friend, and advanced moderation tools, such as blacklists and reputation ratings, are helpful.
  • Given the right tools and support, the community will often do a reasonable job moderating itself.

UPDATE: Comments returned to the Portland Press Herald less than 48 hours after they were turned off. Details here.

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