Last week the New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt announced that the Times had begun allowing user comments on select editorials and news stories appearing on the website (via CyberJournalist). The Times has long allowed commenting on its blogs, but this marks the first time it will allow visitors to comment on stories that actually make it into the print version of the newspaper. All comments will be moderated by Times’ staffers. Hoyt writes about that decision: “The paper is creating a comment desk, starting with the hiring of four part-time staffers, to screen all reader submissions before posting them, an investment unheard of in today’s depressed newspaper business environment.” You can view an example of how comments on the Times site will work here.

In reading Hoyt, it is clear that this is a decision the Times came to very reluctantly. On the one hand, the Times acknowledges the contribution that commenters can make to a site:

“We have two great assets,” said Jonathan Landman, the deputy managing editor who is in charge of the newsroom’s online efforts. “One is the quality of the material we produce; the other is the quality of our readers, some of the most curious, intelligent and sophisticated people on earth.” Putting the knowledge of readers together with the journalism of The Times, he said, could result in “news and information of greater power, reach and quality than even a great newsroom can produce on its own.”

On the other hand, Hoyt provides multiple examples of commenters on the Times’ website run amok and closes with this:

Many major newspapers, like The Washington Post and USA Today, do not have an editor screen comments before posting them. Those two papers allow other readers to object to a comment as abusive, and then an editor will check it.

But Landman said The Times never considered unmoderated comments.

Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president for digital operations of The New York Times Company, said: “A pure free-for-all doesn’t, in my opinion, equal good. It can equal bad.”

I believe that’s especially true if you’re The New York Times and you are trying to maintain a rare tradition of civility. A site with many Rays in Mexican Colony of LA might carry the name of The New York Times, but it would no longer be The New York Times.

I think the solution of allowing comments on select articles is a good one. I also think the decision to allow only pre-screened isn’t going to work for the 99% of newspapers that simply don’t have the resources to devote four full time people to screening comments, as the Times does. The solution simply isn’t scaleable.

If I were running a newspaper website, I would not pre-screen comments. But I would take the following steps to help ensure the conversation maintains a minimum level of quality:

  1. Only allow users who have registered with a site to post comments.
  2. Screen the first comment a user makes. If the first comment is acceptable then let the user post without screening. If it is objectionable or off topic, then don’t allow the user to comment. This will help prevent the trolls seeking to sidetrack conversations from getting through.
  3. Automatically delete all comments that contain profanity.
  4. Create a mechanism that allows users to report comments that are objectionable. If a comment is flagged by enough users, it would then be sent into a moderation queue for review by an editor.
  5. Give users the ability to hide the comments of users they find objectionable.
  6. Provide active oversight of the community. Have editors leave comments themselves. Ban users who are out of line. Delete objectionable comments. You’ll find communities tend to be more civil when administrators maintain an active presence on their site instead of being distant figures.

What do you think is the best way for high volume sites to handle comments?

Update: Thought of one more: (7) Close comments on articles after one week of discussion.  This will free you from having to manage comments on old stories and focus on the new stuff.

About the Author
Todd Zeigler
Todd Zeigler serves as the Brick Factory’s chief strategist and oversees the operations of the firm. In his sixteen year career in digital, he has planned and implemented campaigns for clients including the Pickens Plan, International Youth Foundation, Panthera, Edison Electric Institute, and the American Chemistry Council. Todd develops ambitious online advocacy programs, manages crises, implements online marketing strategies, and develops custom applications and software. He is bad at golf though.