December 2, 2011 1:40:00 PM
The Dispatch's website, cdispatch.com, has long encouraged online readers to leave comments at the bottom of each article. Though the paper still receives some letters to the editor by mail, most people now either email letters to us or simply post a comment at the end of a story.
These comments sometimes provide insight and additional information our reporters either missed or did not fully clarify. Our mission is to encourage constructive conversation about our community, and we value comments that move us in that direction.
Because we allow anonymous comments, the quality of the online dialog too often devolves to cruel name-calling, unsubstantiated claims and wild conspiracy theories. Those conversations can be intimidating to jump into, cast our community in an unfavorable light and, to our mind, have little redeeming value.
Our challenge is to provide a forum where we can have both lively and constructive comments.
We have discussed having editors review each comment before it is posted online. Prior to 2009 we did this; WCBI still uses this method on their website. Though it ensures quality comments, this solution requires significant time by our employees and runs counter to the fast-paced nature of the Internet. It also results in far fewer comments.
We have talked about requiring the use of real names. This is easier said than done online. Facebook requires the use of true identities, but they offer the appealing prospect of connecting with a huge group of past and current friends as an incentive to use real names. We have no such incentive. The Wall Street Journal requires the use of real names for their comments, but we don't have the resources to police this type of requirement on our website.
Other thoughts have been to limit comments to paying subscribers and removing the comment feature altogether.
Last night we launched a new comment system called Disqus that makes participating in these online conversations a lot easier. Online readers can still create anonymous profiles and post comments, but the new system is also fully integrated with Facebook, Twitter, Google and Yahoo. This means users of these services can use their existing profiles to leave comments on cdispatch.com. You can also include your social media friends in the discussion.
The new system makes it easier for you to follow the discussion by allowing you to "subscribe" to the comments. You can choose to receive an email whenever a new comment is posted on an article of interest, and you can reply to a comment from your email inbox -- a valuable feature for non-paying online readers who only have a limited number of views each month.
On our end this system gives more control over moderating the comments. We can easily ban users who consistently post ugly comments. (These people are called "trolls" in Internet-speak.) Similar to our old system, our readers can flag inappropriate comments. Our editors will review flagged comments.
The new system also looks great and makes following the conversation easier.
My hope is that by making it easier to comment on a story, we will get more participation. It may be wishful thinking, but I would like to think that with more participation by our readers, the trolls would be drowned out.
If you have commented on our site before, give us another try. If you've never posted an online comment, come give it a shot. It's not as scary as it sounds.
Peter Imes is publisher of The Dispatch. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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