June 19, 2014

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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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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