Plain Dealer Creates New Comment Policy, Encourages Staffers to Interact

The Plain Dealer rolled out a new commenting policy this week that aims to end bigoted comments and trolling, while also encouraging staff members to engage users in meaningful discussions.

Editors and writers got tired of all the racism, fighting and mean spiritedness that dominated comments at Cleveland.com for years. The Plain Dealer was getting very little value out of the comments on Cleveland.com and many staffers thought that the comments hurt the paper's image.

It wasn't just users, however, that were hurting discussions on Cleveland.com. Most staffers didn't even bother to read the comments posted after stories. John Kroll, director of training and digital development, said there were legitimate questions being asked and points raised in the comments that staffers never responded to.

"Some people said that the comments are so bad, you should drop them," he said. "I never thought that, but if we're never going to respond to comments, what's the point?"

Kroll said readers would ask him if comments left on the site affected story decisions. He was embarrassed to tell them that most likely no one read their suggestions. Kroll told staffers that the most important responses they can offer are to reader questions.

"I don't think there is any point in suggesting that there is any real interactivity on the site if readers can ask legitimate questions and not get answers most of the time," he said. "I think readers deserve that."

Sometimes users don't have questions, but rather that it can be clear from the comments that many people didn't understand a story, Kroll said. In that case, a writer or editor should comment and clarify anything confusing users.

Other times a user will add a comment that is incorrect and lead the discussion astray. Kroll said it is important to dispel those untruths and get the discussion back on track.

In a post announcing the changes, Kroll wrote:

Some critics of The Plain Dealer have said that the comments we allowed on our online stories were too often racist or otherwise hate-filled, that too many conversations got taken over by a handful of commenters who attacked each other and any outsiders who dared step onto their turf.

Those critics were right.

Now, we're fighting back.


"It wasn't just that crazy things were being said in the comments," Kroll said, "but it was also that people who wanted to have a real discussions were getting attacked."

Some editors and writers openly wondered what was the point of having comments if bile ruled the day? Why not just turn comments off? Staffers at The Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com saw an opportunity, however, with comments.

The trick was to find a way to get meaningful comments. Kroll said that there are three things he and staffers are trying to accomplish: moderate comments and delete repeat offenders, be transparent about the whole process and encourage users to leave thoughtful comments. Kroll said that cleaning up comments is not enough, especially after years of neglect.

"Cleaning up the comments is great, he said, "but you can't encourage people to come back in unless you can convince people that they are going to get something out of this with valuable conversation."

A key part of that valuable conversation is the staff interaction with users. A group of 30 of the top people in the newsroom were assembled -- online staffers and select reporters and editors -- to begin this experiment. These people were given moderating capabilities and clear guidelines on what is acceptable.

The staffers are encouraged to interact with users, respond to questions raised in the comments and help spur discussions on Cleveland.com. The hope is that the 30 in this pilot program will develop best practices and eventually help sell the rest of the newsroom on the importance of user interaction.

Some staffers have concerns that it will require too much time or take staffers away from producing content. Others have not been responding to user comments like editors had hoped.

Overall, however, Kroll said the experiment is going well. It's still in the early stages, but most staffers only need to spend a few minutes a day or so on comments. Some online staffers are spending more time on comments, but this new push hasn't been a big time sink for the newsroom.

Overall, users have responded positively to the changes, Kroll said. Some have been ecstatic at the possibility that Cleveland.com may host civil discussions. Others are unhappy that their comments are being considered uncivil.

This latter group are seeing their comments deleted and accounts suspended. These users insist they have a right to say what they want to say. Kroll said no matter what he says to users like this, he can't convince them of the value of the new commenting policy.

Kroll stressed that this is an experiment and that Plain Dealer, Cleveland.com and staffers at on the Advance interactivity team would be evaluating how the experiment is going and making changes.

If this experiment is successful, Advance Internet -- the parent company of Cleveland.com -- may begin rolling out similar initiatives at other news Web sites around the country.

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