Feedback Overload: Handling User Comments on the Shootings

Right after news broke about the shootings Monday morning, The Roanoke Times set up a message board for users to share their thoughts about the shootings. But instead of discussing the events at Virginia Tech, many posters jumped into a debate about gun control and laced their comments with profanities.

“It got ugly very, very quickly,” the Times‘ managing editor, Carole Tarrant, said.

To keep the organization’s focus on covering the news, Times editors decided that they didn’t have the resources to monitor the message board and removed it. They replaced it with a link to a guestbook hosted and monitored by Legacy.com, a Web host for more than 350 newspaper-obituary sites. A link to the guestbook also appears on Legacy.com’s homepage, on all of Legacy.com’s 400-plus newspaper affiliates’ guestbooks, and on The Roanoke Times‘ and the Chicago Tribune‘s homepages.

Tarrant said Legacy.com follows strict guidelines in deciding what comments to post, and about 16,380 posters had measured up to its standards by late Wednesday afternoon. The site includes words of support to victims and families from people across the world. The messages include Bible verses, personal anecdotes and inspirational quotes.

“I haven’t seen them post anything I would question,” Tarrant said.

The Washington Post and The New York Times were among many news organizations experiencing an influx of users Monday. Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com and Newsweek Interactive, said the shooting story became one of the site’s top 10 most-read stories of all time — and generated more than 60 pages of comments.
“It got ugly very, very quickly.”

– Carole Tarrant, managing editor of The Roanoke Times, referring to the site’s message board after the shootings

With that level of attention from users comes an increased editorial burden to track feedback comments. Some sites review comments before they appear online, spiking or editing posts that violate the site’s standards in one way or another. Other sites enable users to publish live to the Web with a click of a button, often inviting other users to alert site editors if they find a particular post objectionable.

Rich Meislin, assistant managing editor for Internet at The New York Times, said the paper deployed about a half-dozen staffers to check about 2,400 comments submitted in connection with the shootings. The staffers make sure the posts do not contain offensive language or off-topic comments before approving them to go live.

Washingtonpost.com handles user feedback in two ways, depending on the circumstances. On story pages, the site relies on a publishing system that prevents users from posting comments that use any of the profanities singled out for exclusion by editors. In addition, staffers read comments after readers have posted them to make sure nothing is in violation of the site’s standards. When they do, they delete or edit them.

“Usually the big story attracts all the jerks who like to cause trouble,” Brady said in a telephone interview, “so we know that we need to pay more attention to those.”

For higher-interest stories such as the Virginia Tech shooting, the Post uses an alternative approach to user feedback. In these cases, the site solicits feedback but reviews all submissions before any are published on the site. Editors select which posts will go live and also edit for grammar and spelling.

Legacy.com chief operating officer, Hayes Ferguson, said its staff has declined about 5 percent of the more than 10,000 entries people have submitted so far through the Roanoke site.

“The majority of the entries we’re declining are derogatory,” Ferguson said in an e-mail. “Among the kinds of things we’re not posting: racial slurs, negative comments about a person or group (the shooter, the university, the NRA), entries pushing a particular agenda (e.g. gun control), etc.”

Typically the site declines 2 to 4 percent of comments based on copyright infringement and mean-spiritedness.

An Overload of Web Traffic

The boom in comments is just one reflection of the swell of Web traffic prompted by the shootings — especially in Roanoke. Usually the most-read story on the site generates around 2,500 pages views. The most-read story on Monday saw 261,000 page views. As the main daily newspaper outlet for Virginia Tech and Blacksburg, Va., The Roanoke Times gathered so much exclusive content and information that the staff faced the dual challenge of finding ways to present it effectively online and of securing sufficient bandwidth to accommodate all the users visiting the site.

The increased traffic caused the site to crash regularly throughout the early afternoon Monday. At one point Monday, when access to Roanoke.com became especially difficult, Editor & Publisher posted excerpts from the paper’s news blog on the E&P site.

Tarrant said the staff was continually increasing the site’s bandwidth to manage the surge of traffic, but just couldn’t keep up with the demand.

“Every time we hit where we thought we should be, it immediately maxes out, then we’d boost it up again and then it maxes out,” she said.

In an effort to ease some of the bandwidth crunch, the Times turned to its Landmark Communications sister paper, The Virginian-Pilot, to host its Web videos.

“Usually the big story attracts all the jerks who like to cause trouble, so we know that we need to pay more attention to those.”

– Jim Brady, executive editor, washingtonpost.comThe Web staff for Virginia Tech’s student newspaper, The Collegiate Times, was also scrambling for solutions after its servers crashed around 10:30 a.m. the day of the shootings.

Online editor Chris Ritter’s main goal was to get the site back to its original state — a large, graphical and Flash-intensive homepage. When that couldn’t happen, Ritter and his staff opted for a simple text page with blue background — to ensure they could communicate information quickly to users. After that page continued to overload its own server, The Collegiate Times tech adviser, Scott Chandler, suggested that the staff use the College Media server, the parent company which hosts the publication’s site.

Once the site stabilized on the additional server, The Collegiate Times began posting photos and videos to a third server usually reserved for design research and development. To prevent crashing again, a Virginia Tech server is now hosting videos and photos for the site.

Monday night The Collegiate Times staff redesigned its homepage from scratch to have a Web site that was “intuitive and a graphically pleasing display” of its special content for the shootings. The Collegiate Times began creating breaking-news multimedia when escaped convict William Morva shot two police officers at Virginia Tech on the first day of school last August.

Since then, Ritter said users are looking at the Web for information more than ever before, and the staff has adopted a Web-first attitude change.

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