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In a video, Michigan Daily staff read some ‘unflattering responses from our readers’

College Media Matters

Staff at the Michigan Daily read some of the reader comments, emails and tweets they get in a new video, Dan Reimold reported Tuesday in College Media Matters. Reimold spoke with Victoria Noble, a columnist and videographer, about why staff created the video.

“…This was meant to add humor to a situation that tends to get people really upset and strains the relationship between writers and readers. We were trying to take a more personal look at how people react to our content and how writers take in those reactions. It’s a more serious topic, but we’re not covering it like ‘This is what you should do’ or ‘This is what you shouldn’t do.’ Comedy is involved, but the point is not to be funny. The point is to provide another outlet for reader-writer interaction.”

“Hey Michigan Daily staff,” Noble reads from her phone in the video, “Can you take a look at these comments and decide if this is the type of article you’d like to have associated with your paper, because as a student at U of M, I feel embarrassed for you and by you for publishing this.”

At the video’s end, staffer Greg Garno says “…I first thought that I was glad someone read my article, so it was good that people are at least reading.”

Here it is:

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Why editors shouldn’t call readers a**holes

New York Times Editor Dean Baquet called a college professor an asshole on Facebook and some people cheered.

It’s possible that those who recognize how hard it is to create great journalism every single day of the year were animated by the idea of the polite and prestigious editor of the country’s biggest newspaper swinging back in response to a cheap shot.

I wish he wouldn’t have.

Creating dialogue in the face of hostility is a challenge in social media – and in real life, too – but it can be done. And it should be done. And it’s in the best interest of journalism that the editor of the New York Times set that example.

Baquet’s comment under University of Southern California’s Marc Cooper’s Facebook post had 53 likes as of this morning.

Marc Cooper seems to reveling in the attention it brought.  He posted every article written about Baquet’s outburst, more than once pointing out to his followers, “I’m the asshole.” And he posted a lengthy response.

I’m sure Baquet expected the scrutiny. Teachers, politicians, newspaper editors, cops – they all hold power over others. They all have the ability to force others to listen. They command a microphone and a spotlight.

I’m not saying they should roll over. Almost everything else Baquet said in his comment was legitimate dialogue. Even the wish that Professor Cooper’s students are more open-minded was fair game.

But the name-calling diverted our attention. I bet it felt good in the moment. And for others, perhaps it provided a vicarious moment of satisfaction in the face of smug self-righteousness. But in the long run, calling Cooper an asshole harms the very condition that Baquet and the rest of journalism strives to create: an informed and engaged citizenry.

Name-calling starts when reasonable listening stops. In doing so, Baquet signaled that he was no longer listening. And that’s a dangerous place for the editor of a newspaper to be.

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The Week’s commenters are looking for a new home

One of the things that happens every time we write about comments and changes to comments and the end of comments is those stories get lots of comments. That’s true today for The Week, which announced that as of Jan. 1, you’ll have to take your comments to social media. “Ironically,” AC03 wrote, “I feel the need to comment on this article.”

Where else can they go? They had some ideas. Here’s a screenshot. (ElGuapo had more to say.)

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 2.07.49 PM

CNN and Mother Jones also got some nods.

When Reuters announced it was ending comments in November, more than 30 people had comments, many saying they were done with Reuters.

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In both sets of comments, some commenters note that they won’t be headed to Facebook or Twitter because they don’t use them. On Monday, Adam Hochberg wrote for Poynter on news sites, including the L.A. Times, that are making comments on sites harder to find. Read more

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Facing a flood of incivility, news sites make reader comments harder to find

When the Los Angeles Times redesigned its website earlier this year, it became harder to find the opinions of people like iamstun1, jumped2, and Shootist.

Those are the screen names of some Times readers who are among the most prolific authors of online comments. Their writings, like the rest of the reader comments, no longer appear at the bottom of stories on latimes.com.

Instead, comments for each article remain hidden unless users click on an icon along the right side of the screen.

Screenshot from latimes.com

Screenshot from latimes.com

That opens a separate page where readers can peruse the thoughts of iamstun1 on the federal budget bill (“Republicans really are scums”), jumped2 on the Senate torture investigation (“EVERYONE involved in releasing the CIA report and harming our Military should be tried for TREASON and HUNG”), and Shootist on a flash flood that damaged homes and forced evacuations throughout Southern California (“couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch of pantywaists”).

The change, part of a major overhaul of latimes.com in May, reflects a trend among news websites. Many are moving reader comments onto separate pages, or – in a few cases – eliminating them entirely, often because of concerns about their acerbic content.

“Everyone in the industry has struggled with how to handle comments,” said Times Deputy Managing Editor Megan Garvey. In a phone interview, she said the latimes.com change was designed to create a “more discrete reading experience.”

“If you want to participate with the comments, you can open them up and you can spend your time there,” Garvey said. “But if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t read comments, you can just read the story in peace.”

Politico, The New York Times, and USA Today also have de-emphasized reader comments in their most recent site redesigns. Each site now requires readers to click a small “speech balloon” icon to see comments from other readers or add their own.

“They’re saying if you really want to read the comments, you’ll have to go a little bit out of your way,” said University of Houston Communications Professor Arthur Santana, who studies the evolution of website comment forums. “They really are worried that (comments) are bringing down the brand identity of the news organization.”

“The worst of humankind”

Santana, a former writer and editor at The Washington Post and San Antonio Express-News, bemoans what comment sections have become at many news websites – forums for name calling, hate speech, and off-topic political rants.

In a study planned for publication this spring in the Newspaper Research Journal, he examined comments about Arizona’s 2010 immigration law on latimes.com, as well as the websites of The Arizona Republic and Houston Chronicle. He found that just over half included threats, attacks, slurs, or vulgarities.

“These commenting forums are very much a cesspool of incivility, racism, and sexism,” Santana said in a phone interview. “It’s just the worst of humankind.”

That nastiness has led a handful of news websites to eliminate comments entirely. The Chicago Sun-Times temporarily discontinued comments in April, lamenting that they had devolved into “an embarrassing mishmash of fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing.” (Comments have since returned to some Sun-Times articles, hidden behind a speech-balloon icon.) Popular Science killed comments last September, and Reuters eliminated them a few weeks ago on all stories except opinion columns.

“It didn’t feel like it was such a fit anymore,” said Reuters Digital Executive Editor Dan Colarusso, who directed readers instead to take their comments to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

“Our site is about the biggest stories in the world being presented in a rational way,” he said in a phone interview.

At the L.A. Times, Garvey said vitriol infiltrated reader forums not only on controversial stories, but sometimes on features and even obituaries. In addition to segregating the comments onto separate pages, she said the Times is moderating them on certain stories, while choosing to not open comment forums on others.

Still, Garvey said the Times isn’t planning to get rid of reader comments.

“We have certain very heavy users who spend a lot of time commenting,” she said. “The question is do you want to alienate people who spend a lot of time on our site …. These are people who are paying to read us.”

A continuing evolution

The Times said it heard little reaction from readers about the change once their initial confusion about the site redesign wore off. Reuters, which allowed reader comments on its decision to eliminate comments, got a mixed reaction. It ranged from a complaint that the news agency is trying to “silence the people” to a reader who agreed with the decision and asked, “Why maintain a trash heap?”

Santana, the Houston professor, sees the latest changes as part of a continuing evolution of online reader forums, which date back to the early days of the web.

“Newspapers allowed commenting forums, and almost immediately regretted it,” he said.

Santana said about half the nation’s largest 137 newspapers have banned anonymous comments, a strategy that can greatly reduce incivility, according to his research. Some sites also screen each message prior to publication or provide tools that encourage the online community to police itself.

Yet despite the angst comments cause and the resources they require, most editors are hesitant to eliminate them. (Santana found fewer than ten percent of large newspapers lack online forums.) They attract users, remain an important tool for reader engagement, and – in between the bile – still feature some productive conversations.

“A lot of people may not like them, but are comforted by the fact that they exist,” Santana said. “The idea of silencing the community by killing the forum might turn off the reader.

“Nobody quite has figured it out yet. It’s an imperfect system all the way around.”

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Re/code joins the list of news orgs cutting comments

Re/code

Re/code’s Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg wrote on Thursday that comments are now gone from the site.

We thought about this decision long and hard, since we do value reader opinion. But we concluded that, as social media has continued its robust growth, the bulk of discussion of our stories is increasingly taking place there, making onsite comments less and less used and less and less useful.

My colleague Andrew Beaujon included a list of other news orgs that no longer take comments on their sites in a Nov. 7 story about Reuters ending comments.

Now here are some Twitter comments about Re/code ending comments:

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Reuters ends comments on news stories

Reuters

Reuters will no longer allow comments on news stories, it says in an unsigned editor’s note Friday. Discussion has moved to “social media and online forums,” the note says, and “Those communities offer vibrant conversation and, importantly, are self-policed by participants to keep on the fringes those who would abuse the privilege of commenting.”

Comments will still be allowed on opinion pieces and blog posts, the notice says.

The Huffington Post announced last year it would end anonymous comments. Sam Kirkland reported later that year that the change would require commenters to register with Facebook, something many people weren’t terribly keen on (based on the comments I read).

Some sites have eliminated comments altogether: Popular Science doinked them last September, and the Chicago Sun-Times eliminated them this summer, saying they contributed to a “morass of negativity, racism, hate speech and general trollish behaviors that detract from the content.”

Related: Anonymous comments can be ‘a frothing, bubbling cauldron of insanity’ Read more

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Why are so many news organizations still worried about retweets by staffers?

Here’s our roundup of the top digital and social media stories you should know about (and from Andrew Beaujon, 10 media stories to start your day, and from Kristen Hare, a world roundup):

— At Reuters, Jack Shafer picks up on my piece yesterday about how so many news organizations — with The New York Times being a notable exception — still seem afraid of reporters’ retweets coming across as endorsements: “Are NPR, the AP, and Reuters’s editorial reputations really so fragile that a 140-character tweet or retweet by a staffer can blow the whole thing down?”

— Three months into the “temporary” Chicago Sun-Times comments ban, publisher and editor-in-chief Jim Kirk tells Robert Feder “he’s heard no complaints lately and he’s seen no drop-off in online traffic.” Comments should return with a new CMS “sometime around the fourth quarter.”

— BuzzFeed’s director of editorial products, Alice DuBois, on the photo “slide things” in popular posts lately: “I do think there’s a part of the editorial mission to keep pushing and experimenting,” she tells Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon.

— The Dallas Morning News has abandoned its “premium” website, which was ad-free and aimed to be more nicely designed. “But you could see this result coming a Texas mile away,” writes Joshua Benton at Nieman Lab. “The premium site was not some beautiful, immersive experience — it was aggressively ugly and a pain to navigate.”

— “It used to be that there was an ever-more alarming growth in the hours people spent in front of the TV,” Michael Wolff writes at USA Today. “Now the greater concern is the limits of human attention.”


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Technology can’t vanquish trolls completely, says leader of comments project

The just-announced partnership between The New York Times, Washington Post and Mozilla holds a lot of promise for the future of comments and communities at news sites, but don’t expect a new system to make trolls disappear completely.

“Try as we might, I don’t think we’re going to create magic,” Greg Barber, the Post’s director of digital news projects, told Poynter by phone. “What we’re going to do is try to take technology and apply it to the work we’re all doing as humans.”

Or, as Knight-Mozilla Open News initiative’s Dan Sinker put it: “We are not declaring war on assholery. It’s not a war we’ll be able to win, certainly not at a technical level.”

But what the team does aim to do with technology is augment the kind of human moderation currently required to make the Times’s comment section the gold standard in the industry. That means semantic analysis, machine learning and other automated tools, Barber said. Human moderation has its limits: the Times can only allow comments on a select number of stories, and despite the high quality, the conversations aren’t the most free-flowing and engaging on the Web.

It seems appropriate here to cite a comment from the Post story announcing the partnership this morning, comparing the Times and Post approaches to comments:

“That’s great news. The current NYT commenting system is death for dialogue. It only encourages one-off comments. 
 
“Here, I learn as much or more in the commenting section as the articles, speaking directly to people with wildly different viewpoints from my own. 
 
“The only problem here is that too many people clog up the comments with partisan bickering. They aren’t interested in dialogue, just taunts.”

Despite those different approaches, Barber said the two major newspapers found common ground when they started meeting late last year.

“Our challenges with comments are similar to what I’m sure other publications have, which is that we have a massive volume,” Barber said. At this point, moderation strategies “focus on helping us to remove the bad stuff. What we want to do with this project is to be able to highlight the good stuff and build something that’s flexible and easy for publishers.”

And the platform, funded with a $3.89 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is intended to go beyond just comments. Barber and Sinker both cited Gawker’s Kinja platform, which allows readers to submit their own blog posts (Mathew Ingram wrote that the NYT-WaPo-Mozilla plan “sounds a little like an open-source version of Kinja.”) And you just can’t not read Gawker’s comments.

Already completed audience research, also funded by a Knight grant, revealed reader appetite to engage on news sites. But barriers — whether it’s bad UX at a technical level or a bad user experience when it comes to interacting with others — make them say, “ugh, I’m not subjecting myself to this,” said Sinker, who is leading the project.

“What we found is that different people want to be able to do different things,” Sinker said, and the community platform he’s leading will be flexible and open-source, allowing newsrooms to implement whatever types of community interaction and user-generated content that suits them best.

“Right now, the most common space for users to contribute is in comments,” Barber said. “But we know that users can give us much more than that.”


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National Journal eliminates comments from non-members

National Journal

As of Friday, National Journal Editor-in-Chief writes, “we’ll join the growing number of sites that are choosing to forgo public comments on most stories.”

Comments are currently disappointing, he writes: “For every smart argument, there’s a round of ad hominem attacks—not just fierce partisan feuding, but the worst kind of abusive, racist, and sexist name-calling imaginable.”

Comments sections will stay “open and visible to National Journal’s members” and “Our reporters and editors will remain extremely active and accessible on Twitter, where the discourse is abbreviated but usually civil,” he writes. You can also email your thoughts, and occastionally NJ will open up comments sections on stories “where the unique perspectives and ideas and suggestions of individual readers can add immeasurably to our journalism.”

Last year The Huffington Post changed its commenting policy, requiring a Facebook login to post. Splitsider and Popular Science eliminated comments altogether. Ugly comments “became too much to really fight back” against, Dan Nosowitz, then a PopSci writer, said in an interview at the time.

“Some sites have responded by devoting substantial time and effort to monitoring and editing comments,” Grieve writes, “but we’d rather put our resources into the journalism that brings readers to National Journal in the first place.”

Related: Anonymous comments can be ‘a frothing, bubbling cauldron of insanity’ Read more

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Guardian has deleted almost 500 comments from pro-Russia trolls

The Guardian

On Sunday, The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor Chris Elliott wrote about a growing problem in the comments section of stories about Ukraine — pro-Russian trolling, which one moderator told him appears to be “an orchestrated campaign.”

Trolling covers a multitude of sins but a particularly nasty strain has emerged in the midst of the armed conflict in Ukraine, which infests comment threads on the Guardian and elsewhere, despite the best efforts of moderators. Readers and reporters alike are concerned that these are from those paid to troll, and to denigrate in abusive terms anyone criticising Russia or President Vladimir Putin.

One complaint came to the readers’ editor’s office on 6 March. “In the past weeks [I] have become incredibly frustrated and disillusioned by your inability to effectively police the waves of Nashibot trolls who’ve been relentlessly posting pro-Putin propaganda in the comments on Ukraine v Russia coverage.

Elliott included links with three recent stories on Ukraine from The Guardian with the listed number of comments and those deleted “for reasons of abuse,” including this one, from which they spiked 259 comments. Out of 4,817 total comments on the stories, Guardian moderators deleted 494.

In the comments for the story about comment trolling, one person wrote “as long as paid EU trolls are allowed to post, it should be OK.” Read more

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