Gerber: Website comment rules stir debate

Gerber: Website comment rules stir debate

January 8th, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

The decision to change the Times Free Press' online comment policy fired up a flurry of online comments.

Readers left about 200 comments on the newspaper's website and on the Times Free Press' Facebook page. More called or emailed me their opinions.

Many are disappointed and even angry that we chose to close comments on news stories.

"Your decision is a mistake. Most of the people who make reasonable comments don't read the abusive ones," a reader posted on the newspaper's website.

Another called the comments section "good entertainment," and many said they felt like the decision to close comments limits their voice.

"Sad to see free speech end," one commenter posted.

Others say we're making the right decision. Online comments are often "offensive, inflammatory, racist, bigoted, ignorant," one reader wrote, while another decried "some horrendously racist and vile statements" posted on some stories.

Still others said that, while some comments are offensive, they'd rather have them than not.

"The comments are sometimes way off topic and sometimes personal attacks," one online commenter stated. "Some of them are sarcastic. Some are wrong. Some are just plain silly. There are some I rarely agree with but NONE should be removed altogether."

I am pleased to see that so many people are passionate about the newspaper's website and our comment policy. Thank you all for sharing your views, both negative and positive. We truly struggled over how to manage online comments as they increasingly grew divisive, cruel and vitriolic.

Newspapers across the country have debated the same issue. Some have found inventive ways to allow comments while keeping them civil.

The New York Times in November started a program for "trusted" commenters, a status offered by invitation only. Trusted commenters enjoy the privilege of commenting on articles without having their comments moderated in advance, according to the newspaper's website.

To be invited, commenters must have a "lengthy history of comments that are thoughtful, discuss the issues politely and address the topics covered in the article," according to the Times.

Trusted commenters are required to connect their Times commenting profiles and their Facebook accounts.

The Wall Street Journal requires its commenters to use their actual first and last names.

USA Today requires readers to log on through Facebook to post a comment, a move to "provide a welcoming environment that encourages high-quality and relevant contributions," according to the newspaper's website.

The Huffington Post, a pioneer in online delivery of news and commentary, has adopted a comments policy that features a team of staff and community moderators who keep an eye on the comments 24/7.

Commenters are excluded from posting comments that "consistently or intentionally make this community a less civil and enjoyable place to be," according to the Huffington Post's website. Commenters who consistently flag comments that are removed by the moderators may be given the privilege of hiding or removing comments entirely. The idea is for the online community to police itself.

Some Times Free Press readers asked why, rather than allow readers to comment anonymously, we don't just require them to use their names.

Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. There's no way for us to know whether someone is posting under their name or a name they made up. For that matter, they could be commenting under someone else's name.

For years, the most reproduced New Yorker cartoon featured two dogs, one at a computer and another on the floor. The dog at the computer screen is telling the other dog, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

As discussion about anonymous online comments continued last week, some readers suggested the change in our policy will hurt the newspaper during an era when media companies are facing challenges. One email referenced the "struggling" newspaper industry, and an online comment referenced the newspaper's "pathetic subscription rate."

I must set the record straight on those comments. The Times Free Press, unlike many newspapers, is growing.

From 2008 to 2011, the newspaper's total daily circulation grew 8.1 percent, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. And page views on our website have more than doubled since January 2010 and now routinely top 6 million a month.

Hardly pathetic.

Naturally, we hope those numbers continue to push upwards and, to that end, I hope you continue to go online to comment on columns, editorials, editorial cartoons and other works of opinion. You can also give feedback on news stories on the Times Free Press Facebook page.

And I hope you'll let us know if you think a story needs more reporting or is somehow off balance. Just because we no longer allow comments to online news stories does not mean we don't want to hear from readers.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.