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Gary Graham: Spokesman-Review’s commenting ban lifted

The holiday season ban on commenting on The Spokesman-Review’s website ended peacefully on Thursday. Democracy as we know it remains unharmed by our 10-day experiment.

We asked print readers and online commenters to share their thoughts on our temporary ban, and we heard from many of you. While my initial column on the topic appeared online during the ban, we lifted the ban slightly to allow comments and we received 172 of them. In addition, the column was “liked” 294 times on Facebook and a link to it was retweeted 35 times. I also received 33 emails. But let me be clear: There is no consensus among those who responded as to whether our ban was worthwhile or harmful.

We initiated the ban both as an experiment and to preserve the spirit of the season. The comments and emails about my column and the ban were either supportive, in opposition, argumentative, thoughtful or enlightening.

While there were many conflicting views on whether we should continue to allow commenters to post anonymously, most who weighed in support and expect our staff to continue moderating the comments in an attempt to keep the threads civil, informative and worthy of being on our site.

Last weekend, we published an Associated Press story that examined the difficulty of hosting comments on newspaper websites. The story noted that of the largest 137 U.S. newspapers – those with daily circulation above 50,000 – almost half ban anonymous commenting, according to Arthur Santana, assistant communications professor at the University of Houston. Nearly 42 percent allow anonymity, while 9 percent do not have comments at all.

I met last week with the four staffers who deal with a lot of the commenting issues to discuss what steps we want to consider as we move forward. We won’t be banning anonymous comments anytime soon, although it remains one of our considerations. However, we are considering banning comments on the letters to the editor that appear in print and online. Letter writers are required to use their names, and we verify letters by calling those who submit them. It seems unfair to impose such a standard on them but allow anonymous comments on the letters. We will continue to remind online commenters that they can contribute to the conversation in print by submitting letters to the editor for consideration.

Because the local news report is what distinguishes us from our competitors online and elsewhere, we are considering banning comments on the national and international stories from the Associated Press and from McClatchy-Tribune news service. Our website functions as a local hub of news, information and entertainment and we want to encourage conversation along those lines.

One point I made last week is that a small group of online commenters is responsible for the majority of the comments posted, which suggests a small bloc dominates the comment threads. We are going to take a look at the site traffic to determine how many of our site visitors read the comments but choose not to comment. Several readers who responded via email said they enjoy reading the comments but have no interest in joining the fray.

Even though our commenting rules are posted on our site, many respondents complained that our rules are not clear or that they are applied inconsistently. We are examining how we can make the rules more prominent. Moderating Web comments is a human endeavor, so it’s understandable that not everyone will agree when we enforce our standards.

We want to continue the discussion about commenting on our site, and I look forward to more thoughts from our readers and Web visitors.

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