August 3, 2014 in City

Gary Graham: Spokesman-Review’s comments system changing

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The Spokesman-Review’s policy on providing readers the opportunity to comment on stories, blogs, columns and other content on our website will change, effective Monday.

That’s the news. But first, some context.

Newspapers across the country have long provided a forum for public opinion and comment in print. The advent of the Internet added a new dimension when newspapers created websites packed with information, along with new avenues for public participation in community discussions.

The new form of participation came in the way of online comments posted in response to stories, blogs and columns available for reading on most newspaper websites, including ours. Our website, then called Virtually Northwest, launched May 6, 1996. From the beginning, readers have been able to post anonymous comments on our content.

We are committed to providing opportunities for our readers to comment on our website and engage in interesting and helpful discussions about life, government and business in our region. Online commenters often provide new context to our stories, point out questions that we should ask, and debate the pros and cons of a variety of issues. Online commenting has provided the newsroom new ways to get constructive feedback and hear what’s on the mind of people living in our region.

Beginning midday Monday, we are changing our comment system. We will allow comments only on local news stories, staff blogs and staff columns. We no longer will allow comments to be posted on national or international stories, or letters to the editor. In our new policy, comments no longer will appear directly beneath stories.

We have two goals for the changes. First, we want to encourage more constructive and civil discourse on local issues of importance and interest to readers in our region. Second, we want to reduce the amount of time our journalists have to spend monitoring the comments. It’s no secret that our newsroom ranks are much smaller in the wake of the economic tsunami that has wreaked havoc on the industry, and time spent moderating comments is time we cannot spend on research, reporting and editing.

The first sentence of The Spokesman-Review’s mission statement reads: “To be the most trusted and most used source of news, information and social networking in and about Spokane and the Inland Northwest.” Local news coverage is our primary purpose, and that is where most of our newsroom staff resources are used. To that end, we certainly want to host and encourage comments on all of our local news content.

We’re making the distinction between local and wire service news for a significant reason. Our editors spend an inordinate amount of time monitoring comments, time that will be better spent working with our staff reporters and editing the work we publish. Monitoring comments for the national and international news consumes so much staff time because those stories draw the highest number of comments that resort to personal insults, threats, racism, obscenities and ill-informed arguments.

Eliminating comments on letters to the editor is long overdue. We print many letters to the editor. We require the writers to identify themselves by name, as well as provide an address and phone number. We call them to verify that they wrote and submitted the letters. On the other hand, online readers always have been able to comment anonymously on the letters, often attacking the writers. Such a system is inherently unfair because the online commenters aren’t required to attach their names to their often critical comments. Besides, there is a perfectly reasonable alternative: Submit your own letters to the editor via standard mail or email editor@spokesman.com.

There is also an online form for letters. Click on “Opinion” on our website to find the link.

As for moving comments to another place on our site, each story will link to a simplified comments page dedicated to reader discussions of the subject at hand.

Some recent industry research has shown that displaying comments at the end of a story actually can harm a newspaper’s brand and credibility because of the acrimonious free-for-all that often occurs among commenters. The research shows that readers erroneously believe the newspaper supports the comments, no matter what the comments are.

Our commenting policy posted on our website is clear: “Please keep it civil. Don’t post comments that are obscene, defamatory, threatening, off-topic, an infringement of copyright or an invasion of privacy.” We also provide commenters with a link to our detailed forum standards and community guidelines. The software our site uses for posting comments allows any commenter to flag a comment or spam that they believe violates our forum standards. The flagging immediately blocks viewing of the comment in question until an editor can review it. We certainly appreciate the help from those readers who share our concern about the quality of the comments.

Because we are able to track the volume and patterns of commenting, we know that we have a relatively small number of commenters who provide the majority of comments. We appreciate our current commenters, but we also want to make commenting a more inviting and potentially valuable experience for the thousands of online visitors who avoid joining the conversation for any number of reasons.

Gary Graham is editor of The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5405, garyg@spokesman.com, or @glgraham via Twitter.


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