Local newspaper comment threads – a suggestion

Rhetorical question:  Why don’t I seem to have as much free time as I used to?  Anyway…..

Recently, I’ve had a few discussions about comment threads and having comments on newspaper websites in general.  Said discussions were prompted, in part, by both the GT story on the Sako case and by a typically ignorant and banal editorial that ran in the DH (no link).  Let me see if I can reproduce the gist here.

1.  The local Lee papers currently have automated comment moderation system.  This means that no one manually reviews the comments that are left on the MVV site or news stories unless someone complains, meaning comments that get past the moderation system but are clearly not cool get posted and may stay posted for some time.

2.  The comment threads on many of the news stories at the GT, DH, and LE are dominated by the same few (maybe few dozen, at most) people.  These folks also happen to be, for lack of a better term, haters – that is, they attack anyone and each other over relatively minor things, make plenty of factual errors, and engage in ad hominem attacks quite frequently.  The overall result is that most of the comment threads on most of the stories (and especially editorials and letters to the editor) are really unpleasant.  The Sako case story thread is a great example.

3.  I believe that to build a good commenter base – commentariat – takes conscious decisions, time and effort on the part of whoever is hosting the website.  Someone has to step in and model the desired behavior the hosting organization wants to see, and not be afraid to play bad cop when necessary.

4.  No one at Lee is doing that.  I don’t blame the local staff; it takes a lot of time and training they, to the best of my knowledge, have not been granted.  But the fact remains that the comment threads hosted by their newspapers are crap threads, and they will stay that way until someone comes along and makes a conscious effort to change them.

And unfortunately, ignoring the threads and the commenters is not an option.  Whether people like it or not, those commenters reflect on the newspapers.  If the local Lee newspaper websites are going to bother with allowing comments, they need to be doing it right, not doing it because everyone else is.  That suggests a lack of understanding at the corporate level (and possibly the local) about what allowing comments means and what it requires.

5. Again, this is not to blame the local staff.  I know the overall number of Lee reporters in the valley has been steadily shrinking in the last several years, and they’ve had a fair amount of work added to their jobs – blogs, videos, the MVV site, etc.  But ignoring it won’t make the problem go away.

6.  So what’s the solution?  Given the relative lack of money in the newspaper industry right now, I doubt that simply hiring a bunch of new staff is an option =)  However, a friend of mine suggested something that seems painfully obvious in retrospect.  Interns!  Specifically, social media/web coordinator interns.

I could be wrong about this, but hear me out:  The economy’s not good.  College students are more likely to intern for free (or at very low levels of pay) right now, and, if done right, this would allow both the students massively valuable and meaningful experience right away (and be one hell of a resume item) and the newspapers to bring people on board who, frankly, probably know more about the web than most of the newspaper staff – meaning the staff could learn from the interns; professional development at minimal cost to the newspapers.  It would also be, of course, free person-hours dedicated to web work.  I’m thinking Twitter, RSS feeds, video and audio incorporation (at least on the tech end), comment/forum moderation and participation, strict web development, etc.

OSU doesn’t have a full J-school, but UO does, and OSU does have a New Media Communications department.  So:  What am I missing?  Is this a crap idea, or is it worth pursuing?

One last note:  Do I think interns should be paid?  Absolutely!  But I’m not that naive, either.

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4 Comments on “Local newspaper comment threads – a suggestion”

  1. Susan Says:

    I’m curious, after looking at the GT link you have listed as to why the paper just does not hold the comment and view it before it is published ?

    Like, once in the morning, read comments, and let what is appropriate through?

    To pull a comment several days after it is out, after finding it has named a victim, does not seem enough to me. It would be better not to have comments at all.

    Would an intern have to constantly be monitoring with twitter, or just checking it once in a while?

    I’m obviously *twitter dumb*.

  2. Dennis Says:

    The three valley papers used to manually approve all comments before they were published, but I suspect the volume was taking too much staff time, which is why they went to an automatic system. If there was available staff, I think moderated comments – i.e. they are read by a human being before being published – is desirable. They could have it set up to where someone was emailed every time a comment was submitted, or there was a specific website they went to to approve comments.

    Twitter doesn’t have to have anything to do with it, though I suppose it could.

  3. Meerkat Says:

    I believe Lee has a policy that forbids unpaid internships, or at least used to, which is why they don’t have interns any more. And given their budget crunch, it’s even less likely now than before that they could pay someone.

  4. Dennis Says:

    Meerkat, do you know the source of the ban on unpaid internships?

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