5 lessons from how Philly.com handled comments on Conlin sex abuse stories

Philly.com faced a tough situation when it broke the story last month that one of its own, longtime Daily News sportswriter Bill Conlin, was accused of sexually abusing at least seven people.

The website of the Inquirer and Daily News usually disables comments on stories involving sexual abuse or vulnerable victims, Editor Wendy Warren told me, because they attract vulgar and harmful comments. Even in high-profile coverage, such as the recent Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University, the website has simply disabled comments.

But because the Conlin case involved a former employee, “The entire organization wanted to be as transparent as possible,” Warren said. The solution was a different kind of commenting.

One place for all conversation

Warren channeled reader comments from all the Conlin-related content into one Cover It Live window, where Philly.com staff could pre-screen comments and respond publicly. It’s a technique they used earlier for the “Assault on Learning” series about school violence, and for the Onco Girl blog written by a 12-year-old living with cancer.

“No one has the perfect tool for comment moderation, but we were able to do a lot with this,” Warren said. “We were happy with the results we were getting.”

Here are some best practices from the experience:

Explain yourself to readers. Warren wrote a blog post to explain the principles behind the Conlin comments decision. And the chat moderators also responded to some questions and complaints posed by readers. “The important thing is to think about transparency, and be willing to answer readers’ questions,” Warren told me. “Readers really do appreciate hearing a response from the editors.”

Make your standards clear. Any premoderation will draw some allegations of censorship, but you can allay some of that by setting a clear standard for what topics and tones are acceptable in the comments. It’s good to post some of the comments that complain about moderation, to show fairness, but make sure the overall focus is on thoughtful comments about the issues.

Get the reporter involved. For the “Assault on Learning” series, reporter Kristen Graham jumped into Cover It Live for scheduled live chats to stimulate more discussion.

Plan your staffing. If you take this approach, you need a workflow plan for who will moderate incoming comments. A reader will wait to see if his comment is approved, but not forever. Warren had Philly.com Web producers handle moderation, and she even took some moderation shifts herself. Moderators also posted messages to let people know when they were halting the forum at night and starting it again in the morning.

Use a Cover it Live “ticker” instead of a normal live chat. The ticker is similar to a live chat, except that it does not expire or go into standby mode. This makes it ideal for permanent or long-term coverage.

This approach isn’t right for every story, but for special cases like this one I think it makes a lot of sense.

The ability to screen comments was Warren’s main reason for centralizing them in one place, but I think it also leads to a more productive form of community engagement. Even though an investigative series or a developing scandal may unfold in dozens of articles over many days, it is counterproductive for the community discussion to be so scattered.

The centralized forum calls everyone into one virtual town hall, where all can hear and participate in the same conversation. This has more impact and a better chance of creating a shared understanding.

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  • Anonymous

    The fragmentation of reader comment is patent in complex stories such as The Daily Telegraph’s ongoing, brilliant series on frauds and shoddy practices in education in England.

    Such coverage tends to get coarsened and derailed by at least one squatting Internet maniac. Media outlets generally have had trouble solving this problem. CJR gave up, as The DT probably will, to a degree. 

    Hysterical comment tends not to develop so virulently if there is a first-last name policy, as at The WSJ. The site attracts intelligent readers who are not coming in just to ride a hobby horse to death.

    Reader comment should be centralized and subject-indexed (recursively) automatically, so that it would be easy to track subjects. The pagination system at The DT reader comment is awkward. I want to one-page all comment every time. At The Globe and Mail, you have to click through for reader comments, and then click through again for replies to them. 

    In a story with 100 comments, 3 or 4 may be worth following up on. I do not see evidence that this followup is happening systematically. Aftermath editorials on pathology in medicine or education do not often incorporate experiences and insights in reader comment.

    Tacitly, it is usually pro forma, the media relationship with reader comment. Poynter should set live subjects this year, one for each month, and have its writers and others engage with readers. What I recommend for January is: “A Dangerous Method,” the John Kerr book, available in a nice paperback, and the film, as compared with the new Penguin Freud’s “Dora,” and Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.” (Sometime in 2012, “Great Expectations” would be a good subject, book and new films).

    Canned curricula–deadening AP–and the comparatively cognitively worthless SAT–lead to students who are textual hysterics. “Textual hysteria” should be in the new DSM. You can find many examples at Harvard.

    When an instructor at Columbia U. recommended Emily Dickinson’s poems for reading this Christmas, only one student responded, slamming Dickinson’s poems as crappy. How “textually hysterical” can you get? 

    Did the instructor respond, at the Columbia Spectator? Not a word, up to yesterday. 

    Lapses in communication may mean that The DT fails to keep up to date on The NYT’s coverage of Pearson Education, and The NYT fails to keep up to date on The DT’s coverage of the same company. 

    Dead curricula in New York state and in Massachusetts, and dead practices continued into Columbia and Harvard, diminish American cognition. As early as grade five, students should have started to adapt to a good research and writing platform, such as the ASUS 1015PN Netbook, or the new ASUS Prime tablet with keyboard, and should have begun to learn writing for the Internet. As if Wall Street could not afford to buy these tools for students in New York state. 

    On the ASUS 1015PN, discrete screens of 580-600 words, in about six concrete paragraphs, make a good format. (For journalism students, Christopher Johnson’s “Microstyle” is excellent.)

    In almost all areas of media practice, what we do lags dramatically behind what we should know based on the tools available. We could take Mark Ashcraft’s “Cognition” as our focusing text. We could follow up with a Memory text from Florida. We could make the COBUILD English Grammar official for journalism programs. (There will be little point in much more chatter about minor points of usage, as at CJR and Poynter). 

    We need to combine the best of the tactile–every journalism student should condense her notes, planning, research, and thoughts into a Moleskine Diary 2012 and be marked on it–and more abstract Internet information skills. 

    A good measure of media information capacity is in education coverage. The Chronicle of Higher Education is incredibly weak. Its reader comment remains largely uncultivated. Neither The NYT nor WSJ can offer a true Higher Education section. Reader comment on education stories in America has not been nurtured beyond about five percent of potential value. 

  • Anonymous

    I like the Philly approach. It engages the community in the seeming hope of clearing up public discourse, it engages the reporter with the public, and the paper as a whole with it’s community.