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News Sites Trying New Approaches to Handling Anonymous Comments

By Ben L. Kaufman · July 20th, 2010 · On Second Thought
I just don’t have time for the stupidity, ignorance, anger, obscenities and racism that anonymous online commenting encourages. Those folks are not people to whom one says, “Come, let us reason together.” Rather, they’re the literate cousins of people who call local talk shows.

In a more innocent online era, many dailies and others opened themselves to online comments. It was to be an instant Letters to the Editor, a more personal connection with the reader. If they remain open, editors post rules and give someone the “kill button” to stanch the toxic stream. Abusive and obscene emails are the first to die.

The Enquirer and other Gannett dailies have gone a step further. They hired an outside company, Pluck, to intervene on reader online comments. I read about it on Jim Romensko’s PoynterOnline web site. As far as I can tell, Publisher Margaret Buchanan hasn’t told readers about the outsourcing.

So I asked. Brian Butts, director of data and technology at The Enquirer, responded: “As of July 1st, Pluck has begun moderating comments to Enquirer stories, blogs etc if (and only if) those comments have been flagged as abusive. They are not proactively combing through stories looking for things that have not yet been flagged. We haven’t posted something publicly to readers yet (we wanted to make sure the transition happened smoothly), but this piece at another Gannett site (Green Bay, Wisc.) could be used as a model:

“A change in the way we monitor reader comments online will help us devote more resources to ensuring a vibrant yet civil virtual dialogue. Beginning Thursday, The Green Bay Press-Gazette and its fellow Gannett U.S. Community publishing websites that use Pluck social media services will institute more rigorous moderation of content reported as abuse. This change, which our newspaper and others will pay for, will allow 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week monitoring of potentially abusive comments made on discussion forums and in story chats and blogs.

“As part of our ongoing efforts to enhance community conversation … The Press-Gazette continually strives to offer readers additional options to weigh in on the stories that matter to you. The majority of readers who participate in these forums, chats and blogs engage in civil, pertinent online conversations that add valuable perspective to the news of the day. Our online guidelines ask readers to use appropriate language and not attack others personally. And while most readers abide by these guidelines and our more-detailed terms of service, we do run into cases in which abuse occurs. Our online staff can't be everywhere at all times, and it can be difficult to offer a prompt response to every claim of abuse.

“By switching to this expanded moderation model, we can better and more swiftly respond to reader concerns about the lack of civility in some online posts and forums. This is mutually beneficial in that we can spend more time finding ways to serve the majority of readers through community conversations and other options for productive discourse.

“It’s important to note that our new moderators will monitor only our reported abuse page, evaluating what is reported there in the context of our established guidelines. Our Press-Gazette online and Opinion page staff, who currently moderate the abuse queue, still will monitor the rest of the story comments and conversation. Under the new system, Pluck staff will address abuse complaints within 30 minutes, and often much more quickly. Moderators will work independently, but will be able to reach out to local editors to weigh in on abuse reports that are less clear-cut than others.

“Many of our readers have expressed concern, at one time or another, with some of the comments made in story chats and forums. We offer the report abuse feature as a service to you, and the switch to this enhanced form of moderation can only improve that service and, we hope, reiterate the extent to which we value your comments and input. We are confident this new system will serve you, our readers, well. And as always, we hope you’ll tell us what you think.”

The Enquirer’s Butts added, “I have no idea where the Pluck moderators are physically located. According to their web site, Pluck has offices in Bellevue WA, Santa Monica CA, Austin TX, New York and London. If they further outsource it somewhere else (like India), we haven’t been told. Pluck will work hand in hand with us if they have any questions or borderline issues. They've been given a set of moderation guidelines by Gannett.”

Curmudgeon Notes

• If a streetcar is such a good idea for central Cincinnati, where are the voices of Over-the-Rhine, Mount Auburn and Clifton Heights residents who see it as an asset or liability? Not in The Enquirer. We get usual suspects, mostly government or other trolley advocates. People live along the likely routes. Many are poor, many are black. Some are students (who can be poor and/or black). They’re silent in the paper. Where will they park when tracks dominate their streets? Who will be displaced by the economic development that we’re assured will line the tracks? Silence in The Enquirer.

Who are these twentysomethings who’ll ride the streetcars to and from the downtown and UC area and whose fares will reduce annual subsidies paid by Cincinnatians? I haven’t heard from them in The Enquirer or why they’d pay to come up the hill to Calhoun Street after UC and its allies have razed and homogenized the university’s south side to allay parental fears of urban living. It’s one thing for the paper to toss an occasional bone to critics, opponents or others who raise valid questions about the physical and financial plan for the streetcar, but Enquirer reporting ignores the predictable human costs while echoing the promised benefits of development along the tracks.

The Enquirer’s reproduction of its 1990 National League West victory page 1 was a nice touch midway in this year’s uncommon winning season. One headline says, “Title-starved Reds fans ‘on top of the world’.” Deja vu all over again. But there’s a body blow below the fold: The 1990 paper announces a record high Sunday circulation of 350,000.

Would that the paper reproduce that kind of circulation and its attendant advertising revenue and staffing. Sic transit gloria mundi.

• Josh Pichler is The Enquirer’s new uber editor for business news. The scion of an accomplished local family, his business pages will be watched to see how they reflect family interests. That convergence can’t be avoided. His dad, Joe, was chairman and CEO of Kroger and is vice president of 3CDC, the private nonprofit redevelopment corporation in the city core. What 3CDC does or doesn’t do is a continuing major story.

In the same way, it will be interesting to see if Josh is more sensitive to the need for business news stories to note that his boss, Buchanan, is on the 3CDC executive committee. That’s been missing from The Enquirer when it writes about key 3CDC decision and investments. This isn’t to pick on Josh. He’s paid his dues and earned his promotion. It’s a visibility and vulnerability shared by others: anyone on Cincinnati City Council named Bortz (Chris and Arn of the Towne Properties family) or on Hamilton County Commission named Pepper (David, son of former P&G chairman and CEO John Pepper and activist Francie Pepper).

Josh, David and Chris inherit good names. There’s no more valuable gift a family can bestow, but the cost is intense scrutiny and the risk of motives being attributed to any action.

• Was no one embarrassed by The Enquirer’s fawning coverage of the new downtown building’s “tiara” top? How does this exercise in poor taste demonstrate faith in the city? A tiara? Princess Di? Since when is gaudy or kitsch symbolic of Cincinnati? On the other hand, I can see a convergence: Di manipulated the media with a rare zest and talent and all she had to do was smile and many journalists wrote glowing stories about what she was doing as future queen.

• I’m glad the Sunday story explaining the likely fixes to Cincinnati’s combined sewer overflow problem was in the Forum Section, given the wrongheaded editorializing in the story and headline. Are we really “stuck” with the costs? “Stuck?” Has anyone involved in this otherwise useful story ever lived in a community without proper sewers? Or had an otherwise adequate “sanitary” sewer back up during a deluge because it also was built to carry rainwater? “Stuck?” Like being stuck with firefighters or teachers?

Sewers are infrastructure without which we can’t survive as an urban society. If you want “stuck,” try stadiums or trolleys we can’t afford, the tasteless “tiara” or the butt ugly Underground Railroad Freedom Center blocking much of the view of the river. That’s stuck. A modern sewer isn’t an option unless the reporter and headline writer want us to return to cess pits and typhoid fever and cholera from polluted drinking water.

The DR (Diane Rehm) Show scored the kind of triumph that’s possible only on public radio. She devoted both hours recently to the financial repercussions of the BP oil spill. The star of the first hour was Kenneth Feinberg, the independent “special master” responsible now for awarding damages from BP funds. Journalists and others joined the discussion, as did callers whose questions were sharp and relevant. It was the clearest description of the damages process and BP financial status I’ve heard or read in one place at one time.

• This headline from The Springfield (Mass.) Republican was too good not to share: “Springfield police charge one-armed man with unarmed robbery.”

• At least 22 news organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the free speech of obnoxious Westboro Baptist Church members to picket the funerals of American combat casualties with signs that damn the dead man or woman and assert that our wars and losses are God’s vengeance for tolerating homosexuals. Enquirer owner Gannett was not among the news organizations reported as signatories on the brief; E.W. Scripps was. The case is headed for the Supreme Court.

• In a recent column, I said I was unsure whether I’d pay to read The London Times online. I’m not opposed to online pay walls, but just as I pick and choose among newspapers and magazines I subscribe to at home I can’t buy every online daily that I read when it was free. Owner Rupert Murdoch wants $4/week for The London Times. That’s a third more than if I paid in sterling. With other quality British dailies free online, count me among the dropouts. Too costly, given the alternatives. I’ll miss the best efforts of the daily and Sunday London Times reporters, but there always is the 24-hour rate if there’s something without which I can’t live.

• Reuters’ online Media File says “sharp analyst” Douglas Arthur — late of Morgan Stanley — is back covering newspapers. “Arthur initiated coverage of Gannett for Evercore Partners last week, stamping Gannett with an ‘overweight’ rating and a price target of $18. It’s likely his report sent shares in the newspaper and broadcasting company soaring about 6% to $14.16 on July 7 close. Newspaper companies used to be covered by a boatload of analysts until around 2008 when they started dropping like flies. Maybe if a few more come back into the fold we’ll be looking at an upward trend.”

• What’s good enough for BP and KFC is fine for National Public Radio, whose CEO, Vivian Schiller, wants to drop the National Public Radio name and rebrand the network as NPR. Great. Get rid of “public” except during fund-raising. After all, British Petroleum (briefly) enhanced its image by rebranding itself as environmentally friendly BP and Kentucky Fried Chicken hides its calories behind KFC.

Schiller has been CEO at National Public Radio for about a year. She’s a transplant from commercial TV and the New York Times online operation with little background in radio or public anything. She must also be tone deaf or has never heard her local National Public Radio station reminds listeners that as the “public” we provide at least half of each station’s support. NPR is a “privately supported, not-for-profit” organization and has called itself National Public Radio since it went on the air. It also gets some of our public money through government grants to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That word again: “Public.”

• I asked Anna Christopher Bross, senior manager for media relations at National Public Radio, about the rebranding as NPR (above). She said, “We haven't issued a statement or media release, but here’s some background for you: Over the past few years, we've gradually transitioned from identifying ourselves by our full name to the simple, short NPR. Most of our audience — more than 27 million on-air and millions more who consume us on NPR.org and through their mobile or tablet devices — identify with us simply as NPR. And as NPR.org and mobile audiences continue to grow, the long-held ‘NPR’ seems to us a more inclusive and accurate reflection of how we and the stations go about delivering news and programming. At the beginning of 2010, we put out a memo to staff and stations, to make things consistent on-air, online, in print, etc. Our hosts now say ‘This is NPR’ instead of actually spelling out the acronym (which no longer requires additional explanation). To clarify, this is not a legal name change; our legal name will remain National Public Radio, but we are doing business as NPR, which is a trademarked brand.”

• Can virtually all critics be wrong about the new iPhone4? Few mentioned its dropped calls. Apple initially said it’s a user fantasy or software problem. That’s an admission of the problem Apple-enamored critics missed. Consumer Reports says the dropped call problem is built in to the aerial and if the gizmo is held wrong, signals can be lost. I’ll go with Consumer Reports. Ask Lexus what happens when this nonprofit, ad-free publication gets on your case. This Apple episode makes too many mainstream media critics look like touts rather than reporters exercising critical faculties. OK, I know no one talks on those things, but you still need signal strength for texting and a dropped call is a dropped call, even for the orally challenged.

• Yahoo is creating a blog that uses reader queries to guide its news judgment. The New York Times describes it this way: “Yahoo software continuously tracks common words, phrases and topics that are popular among users across its vast online network. To help create content for the blog, called The Upshot, a team of people will analyze those patterns and pass along their findings to Yahoo’s news staff of two editors and six bloggers. The news staff will then use that search data to create articles that — if the process works as intended — will allow them to focus more precisely on readers.” That, Yahoo hopes, will draw more advertiser money.

• The online Daily Beast has a wonderful essay on contemporary spying. Stella Rimington, the retired head of Britain’s MI5, that branch of the Secret Intelligence Service dedicated to counter-espionage, talks about “illegals” who fit into their host country, just as the Russians recently deported did.

• Octavia Nasr will be lucky if the only cost from an indiscreet Twitter comment is loss of her job as senior editor for Middle Eastern Affairs at CNN. With its latest hostile outburst against free speech, the conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority ruled that sympathy such as Nasr expressed might be prosecuted as aiding terrorism. Her tweet said, “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. … One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.” Fadlallah is considered a terrorist by the U.S. and Israel, whom he openly reviled. Hezbollah is on the U.S. terrorist list of organizations. After the roof fell in, Nasr added this (in part) on her blog:

“Reaction to my tweet was immediate, overwhelming and provides a good lesson on why 140 characters should not be used to comment on controversial or sensitive issues, especially those dealing with the Middle East. It was an error of judgment for me to write such a simplistic comment and I’m sorry because it conveyed that I supported Fadlallah’s life’s work. That’s not the case at all. Here’s what I should have conveyed more fully: I used the words ‘respect’ and ‘sad’ because to me as a Middle Eastern woman Fadlallah took a contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on woman’s rights. He called for the abolition of the tribal system of ‘honor killing.’ He called the practice primitive and non-productive. He warned Muslim men that abuse of women was against Islam.”

• As risks of Twitter brevity become clear (above), Twitter’s usefulness to crowd sourcing turned Georgianne Nienaber on to a great story for Huffington Post: Coast Guard Petty Officer Rachel Polish is spokesperson of the Deepwater Horizon Response team. A reservist, her day job is with the public relations company that represents BP. Nienaber said tips poured into her Facebook page and were on target. Polish is a branding specialist whose job at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide includes many of her Coast Guard responsibilities and vice versa.

• The British Economist weekly magazine edited two people out of the photo it used on a recent cover to show President Obama alone on a gulf beach, looking pensive about BP’s oil spill. Reuters, the international news agency that provided the photo, said the manipulation was unacceptable: “Reuters has a strict policy against modifying, removing, adding to or altering any of its photographs without first obtaining the permission of Reuters and, where necessary, the third parties referred to.” The Economist said it removed the Coast Guard admiral and a local official to simplify the image rather than to make any political point.

• Lindsay Lohan’s endless missteps are the fodder of a universe of celebrity “news” outlets. So are her more sober moments as a style and role model for young women bent on self-destruction. That’s gone on for years, even though I’d bet most reporters and editors who handle these stories also know her film credits are spectacularly thin.

Now, however, she’s presented editors with a real challenge. When she appeared in a California court for her latest misbehavior and was sent to jail for 90 days, she showed the sentencing judge her finger nail with FUCK U painted on it. How do you report that?

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: editor@citybeat.com



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