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New story commenting platform coming to New Haven Register

16 Mar

The New Haven Register will unveil a new platform for online story comments next week aimed at improving the tenor of conversation on the site by allowing real identities to be used, providing a better user experience for readers and providing staff with better tools to moderate and participate in the discussion.

Readers will still be able to comment anonymously, and without going through a registration process, if they wish, but the new system will also allow you to log in with your Facebook account, your Twitter, Yahoo or Google ID or by registering with the system itself.

We will be maintaining our policy of having staff screen comments before they appear on the site, but plan to reward the most responsible commenters with a “whitelist” status that will allow their comments to go up on the site immediately. To qualify for this, a reader must register with the site or use a verified ID such as Facebook and prove over time that their comments are civil and not in violation of our policies against abusive and hateful language.

The platform we’re using is called “Disqus.” It has been in use at The Register Citizen in Torrington since last summer. In the weeks following its deployment in New Haven, we’ll also be adding it to the Middletown Press and our weeklies in Connecticut.

Some key differences between Disqus and our present story commenting system include:

- The ability to use a verified identity log-in if you choose. We believe that introducing more conversation among people who are using their real names will improve the tenor of conversation among even those who continue to choose to be anonymous.

- The ability to reply to specific comments, and maintain “threaded” conversations. Right now, a story on the Register’s website might have as many as 100 comments. If you want to respond to the fifth comment in that thread, you can, but your response will show up 96 comments later. The new system allows readers to reply to specific comments and carry on a back-and-forth with others. There is also a “Like” button next to each comment, and a setting that moves “most liked” comments to the top of the thread.

- The ability to edit your comment after you’ve posted it. A frequent complaint that we have regarding our present story comment system is that there’s no way to take back something you regret saying, or more often, to correct a typo or grammar error, after you’ve hit submit, other than asking a moderator to take the comment down altogether.

- The ability to register with the new platform and create a profile – either using your own name or a pseudonym – that can be recognized by other readers. Once you establish a track record of responsible commenting, you’ll be eligible for “whitelisting” by moderators so that your comments will appear immediately on the site instead of being reviewed ahead of time by staff.

Registering is easy. This is what you’ll see if you choose “login” and “create new profile.” You can also go to Disqus.com and create a profile right now. And when the new system launches on the New Haven Register’s site next week, just log in with the user name and password that you chose.

Our new system also allows you to log in using your Facebook profile, your Twitter account, or your Google or Yahoo ID. Just click on “post as” and make your choice.

Finally, you can still choose to comment any time, as a one-time thing, by choosing “post as” guest. Like our present system, that allows you to choose a user name and plug in an email address every time you comment.

UPDATE: Our new story commenting platform is scheduled to go live on the New Haven Register website at noon Tuesday, March 20. If you have any problems or questions about it, or if you have any questions in the future about why a story comment was approved or not approved, you can email comments@nhregister.com.

New Haven Independent shuts down story comments, leaving a two-legged stool

8 Feb

The New Haven Independent is a strong model for local journalism for three reasons, in my opinion:

- The news judgment and journalistic chops of founder Paul Bass and the team he’s built over the years.

- Their strong connections to the community and seamless engagement in community dialogue and solution-seeking.

- The participation of their audience at every step in the process, from story idea, to reporting, to editing, reaction and follow-up.

It’s a formula we have tried to emulate at our newspapers in Connecticut, bringing transparency to our process and investing in community engagement both in terms of resources and focus.

So it was like a needle scratching across a vinyl record yesterday to read that Paul was shutting down story comments on the site.

How can the community be part of your journalism if you don’t even allow them to comment on what you do?

The Independent has had a pretty tightly moderated story comment system that has been praised by media critic Dan Kennedy and for several years stood in stark contrast to the New Haven Register’s “everything goes up and is policed after the fact” policy. We changed that policy in the fall and now have basically the same system as the Independent. You can still comment anonymously, but every comment is screened in advance by our staff and we have a set of rules and guidelines for those commenting and for moderators.

Paul Bass said in his explanation about shutting off comments that he’s noticed the tone getting worse, even with moderation, and was stung by a recent incident in which a nasty comment accidentally made it up on the site. (We’ve seen this kind of human error happen, too, for sure … especially with the large volume of comments we’re dealing with.) He said:

“Is this the long-awaited new dawn of democracy and accountability we thought we were helping to help spark in New Haven by launching the Independent in 2005? Or are we contributing to the reflexively cynical, hate-filled discourse that has polluted American civic life? Are we reviving the civic square? Or managing a sewer with toxic streams that demoralize anyone who dares to take part in government or citizen activism?”

In his column, Paul suggested that the Independent was taking a “break” from story comments, hinting that perhaps after regrouping they would be back with either a renewed moderation effort or a different system.

But he also suggests that maybe they shouldn’t exist at all, and that perhaps the conversation happening via social media on Independent stories has or can replace the very concept of story comments.

There are so many problems with the latter argument. What a way to speed alienation and distrust in your audience – to say that they can “go elsewhere” to react, challenge or add context to your journalism. And you’re not even saying that you’ll be joining them “over there” (and if that discussion is happening on individual Facebook pages, you won’t necessarily even have access). Because (implied) you don’t care what they have to say and don’t believe they have anything to contribute.

To me, this is the “anti-New Haven Independent” philosophy of news. It goes against so much of what has made that organization great.

(And P.S. – just because the conversation happens on social media, with verified identities, doesn’t mean it will be any less nasty. Have you followed Facebook and Twitter conversations lately?)

So I’m hoping that, indeed, this is a very short “break” that will allow Paul Bass and the New Haven Independent to come up with a better model for story comment and on-site engagement … maybe something we can learn from once again.

Mathew Ingram is far more articulate than I in defending the existence of story comments and in making the case that anonymous comments have value. But I wonder if the Independent will go to a system such as a Facebook plug-in (requiring you to comment with your Facebook ID) or take it a step further and switch to the old letters-to-the-editor-style verified identity system that has been used at the Lewiston Sun Journal in Maine and advocated by Howard Owens, another leader in creating a sustainable hyperlocal model.

Shutting off comments (for good, I mean … I respect the Independent’s decision to “pause and hit the reset button”) deals with abusive commenters and a toxic environment the way that cutting your arm off would deal with a skin rash.

The ability to comment is at step one in building a relationship of trust and collaboration with our audience. Preventing the jerks from pissing all over that platform is step two. We’re not there yet, but building a better sense of community (which must involve injection of more real identity commenting, but doesn’t necessarily have to preclude anonymous) and constant and quality engagement in story comments by our reporters and editors should follow.

Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe celebrates one-year anniversary

16 Dec

Hard to believe, but it’s been one year since The Register Citizen launched a “Newsroom Cafe” and invited its audience to be involved at every step in the process of local journalism.

Boiling it down, we’ve learned that:

Managing Editor Emily M. Olson leads a workshop for local organizations and church groups on how to get information published by The Register Citizen.

- Transparency builds trust.

- Openness improves your journalism, leading to new and more diverse sources and improving accuracy and context.

- Partnerships make you stronger.

As Andy Carvin said recently, it’s not about “leveraging your audience.” It’s about listening and knowing how the audience is telling its own story, and in some ways acting as a facilitator as the community organizes itself around common interests or goals.

If you feel that you must own and control every piece of content and platform for delivery, you will wither and die in isolation from the networked world.

In terms of tactical lessons learned over the past year, we’ve found that:

- There will never be a good time to commit time to audience engagement, becoming more transparent, trying new things and training staff, especially in a newsroom as small as ours. You have to “just do it.”

- Effective community engagement won’t happen on your terms, it will happen on the audience’s terms. Their lives don’t revolve around your internal process or desire to get a story done. But the power of the crowd can be amazing when you’ve tapped into something that citizens care deeply about and are either already organizing around or have been waiting for a platform to organize around. Readers (for the most part) aren’t going to tune in to the live stream of your daily story meeting because they care about what you talk about every day. They’re going to tune in because they know you’ll be discussing a particular issue that affects their neighborhood, workplace or family. Or the ideal – they’ll tune in because they feel welcomed to bring up that issue to you because you HAVEN’T been discussing it and they think you should.

- The logistics of community engagement deserve a dedicated staff position (or positions), but it’s a principle that must be incorporated into everything we do and taken up by everyone in the newsroom.

- “Just do it” should be the mantra given the urgent need to transform our business model and how quickly things around us change. But we need to spend more time along the way communicating internally and making sure that every employee understands and buys in to the underlying principles of openness and engagement. You can be undermined pretty quickly by staff who are just going through the motions.

Significant articles that have been written about the Newsroom Cafe experiment and/or its role in the JRC turnaround over the past year:

GigaOm, “For Newspapers, the Future is Now and Digital Must Be First,” December 2, 2010

New York Times, “Walk in, Grab a Muffin, and Watch a Newspaper Reinvent Itself,” December 15, 2010

Poynter, “Register Citizen Takes Analog Approach to Reader Engagement: Open Doors,” December 16, 2010

Suburban Newspapers of America, “Opening Up Your Newsroom,” March 7, 2011

Editor & Publisher, “10 Newspapers That Do It Right,” March 15, 2011

Nieman Lab, “Journal Register’s Open Advisory Meeting: Bell, Jarvis and Rosen Put Those New Media Maxims to the Test,” March 25, 2011

Poynter, “At Washington Post and Register Citizen, ‘report-an-error’ forms make it easier to identify, respond to mistakes,” April 4, 2011

NewspaperTurnaround.Com blog, “Why Our Small Town Daily is Adding a Full-Time Curator,” April 20, 2011

JoyMayer.Com, “Inside the Engagement Experiments at The Register Citizen,” May 4, 2011

Columbia Journalism Review, “John Paton’s Big Bet,” July/August 2011

EditorsWeblog.Org, “JRC’s Jim Brady: Uniting Digital First With a Face-to-Face Approach,” September 5, 2011

Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe blog, “What the Newsroom Cafe Has Taught Us About Improving Local Journalism,” September 13, 2011

The Associated Press, Open Connecticut Newsroom Wins APME Innovation Award,” September 15, 2011

American Journalism Review, “Wooing Them With Coffee,” October/November 2011

Connecticut Newsroom blog, “Corrections, Fact Checking and Accountability: Our New Approach,” October 26, 2011

Annenberg Innovation Lab paper by Melanie Sill, “The Case for Open Journalism Now,” December 7, 2011

John Paton’s “Digital First” blog, “New Media’s New Role as Both Medium and Messenger in a World of Partnerships,” December 13, 2011

The limitations of our 97% white newsroom

5 Nov

It’s not an exaggeration or a figure of speech. It’s the actual percentage. Our newsroom at the New Haven Register is 97 percent white. We do not look like the city that we cover (New Haven is 37 percent white).

We are a worse newspaper because of it.

I’m not talking about extreme examples – like this racist manipulation of a news story at a Chicago TV station.

But lack of diversity in our newsroom affects us in ways that we don’t realize.

It has come up over the past few days as we’ve sought public input on changing our online story comment system at the Register. At a public forum Thursday night, a reader was incredulous that we have allowed viciously racist comments to appear on our website and have yet to fix the problem after several years of awareness.

In a blog post about that forum, I suggested that the system would have been changed a long time ago if we’d been listening like we did on Thursday night. (In-person conversations and asking the community for advice has a different impact on decisions than fielding angry phone calls or emails, which there were plenty of over the past few years.) And I said that the system would have changed long before now if the New Haven Register newsroom were not 97 percent white.

Well, the fact is that New Haven’s newsroom staff – pretty much unanimously – has been horrified and upset by racist and other offensive story comments for a long time. Former Editor Jack Kramer pushed several times for a change similar to the one we’re about to make.

If you read my post as saying that nothing was done because the newsroom is 97 percent white and didn’t care enough to make it happen, you’d be pretty upset after fighting for two years to do just that.

What I’m saying is that there was a newsroom full of people who understood and wanted to do the right thing, and it still didn’t happen. My argument is that if there were more newsroom employees of color, especially in leadership positions, the arguments for changing it (a sharper, more urgent message, perhaps) would have overcome whatever company bureaucracy, failure to agree on a plan for implementation or other sticking point that was holding things up.

Since taking over as head of New Haven Register parent Journal Register Company in February 2010, John Paton has lamented the lack of diversity both in our newsrooms and in the absence of women and people of color in key leadership positions in the parent company. He has pledged to make this a priority.

To be blunt, if the company allowed a forum for racist comments and stereotypes for years (regardless of who or how many people pushed to end it, it wasn’t fixed), and you agree with me that more diversity in the newsroom and in company leadership would have meant a different result, then how else is lack of diversity affecting us? What is our news coverage missing? How is it warped by the world view shaped by the homogenous racial experience of our reporters and editors?

It’s an inconvenient time to raise this topic. Newsrooms aren’t hiring, and the New Haven Register is no exception.

But if we’re serious about “community engagement” and building a relationship of trust with the audience, it’s the elephant in the room. Diversity has to be high on our agenda over the next year. I don’t have a plan for getting to where we need to be, but I’m committed to asking the newsroom, the audience and those who are doing it right for help in creating one.

Community engagement can reveal big gap in newsroom, audience perceptions

4 Nov

We invited the public to an open forum about online story comments at the New Haven Public Library last night, and we came away with some powerful arguments for community engagement and transparency.

The turnout was small – four people in attendance with more watching video on our website and participating in a live chat – but the feedback was powerful.

Yvonne Manning-Jones of Hamden said that racist comments on the New Haven Register’s website have changed how she views the community. She wonders if the waiter serving her at a local restaurant, or the co-worker who sits next to her, could be one of these people anonymously saying these things. Do they look at the color of her skin and assume she is on welfare, or a criminal?

Marianne Carolla makes a point to Regional Editor Matt DeRienzo during a public forum on the Register's online comments policy held at the New Free Public Library Thursday evening.

Manning-Jones has been so outraged by the nature of comments on the site – and how long the newspaper has allowed them to continue – that she has started copying examples and pasting them to her Facebook page, asking her friends whether they should be supporting any business that provides a platform for this with their advertising or home delivery subscription.

Of course, editors and reporters have cringed over the nature of story comments like this for a long time. But hearing how it is viewed by and affects Manning-Jones brings home a sense of urgency that wasn’t there. Which raises the question: How long ago would the system have been changed if we had been out there listening all along? And how quickly would it have been addressed if the top leadership and ranks of the newsroom were not 97 percent white? (And yes, that is the actual ethnic breakdown of newsroom staff at the New Haven Register, which serves a city whose population is only 37 percent white.)

Absent a dialogue between editors and the audience about it, a perception has developed that the New Haven Register at the very least didn’t care enough about the racist comments to do something about it, and at worst actually endorsed them. If that’s not the case, Manning-Jones asked, why are they present on the Register’s website and not on the online news site the New Haven Independent?

We spent a lot of time at last night’s meeting talking about the ideal of story comments being a constructive public forum that improves and supplements our journalism and helps the community sort through important public policy issues.

So another wake-up call came when West Haven resident Marianne Carolla spoke.

She take on story comments wasn’t about offensive things being posted, or about the Register going too far in “censoring” readers.

Carolla spoke about a forum that a New Haven Register reporter covered where a public official made statements, and then a group of citizens spoke at length with an opposing viewpoint. The story that was published contained only the public official’s side of the conversation, she said, even though the reporter interviewed citizens present and heard their testimony.

Carolla said she did not use our online story comments to weigh in on the topic that day because she felt the “deck was stacked” against her. Rather than the open invitation that the newsroom perceives story comments to be, this reader’s perception of bias in our reporting and editing conjured a door that was slammed shut.

Was that reporter biased? Did they screw up the coverage of that event? Maybe, or maybe the citizen testimony she was referring to was not central to the topic the reporter was there to cover. Or maybe the reporter had half an hour to write the story before deadline.

Meeting Carolla reinforced my belief in the “Fact Check” box we have placed at the bottom of every story, and our recent launch of a blog that handles corrections more transparently and explains how we’ve handled Fact Check reports. We can build trust the more we invite them into the process and the more we show readers “how the sausage is made” by being transparent about our reporting and editing process. That could include opening our story meetings to the public, like we do at The Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe, or by sharing the list of stories we’re working on each day.

Most of the errors made in journalism are sins of omission. Missing context, the “more to the story.” Readers who know there’s more to the story can see bias or incompetence in those omissions when the fact is that reporters and editors don’t know about or have access to all the potential sources and angles of a topic. Opening the process and engaging with the community can both improve that journalism and build trust.

CLICK HERE for video of last night’s forum.

UPDATE: New Haven Register Managing Editor Mark Brackenbury makes an important point in the comments below. I write about missing context being the most common error we make in our reporting, and this post is missing a key piece of context about the New Haven Register’s story comment system.

For a long time – several years, actually – newsroom staff have felt strongly that the story comment system needed to change, for exactly the reasons spelled out by Yvonne Manning-Jones and more. Former New Haven Register Editor Jack Kramer pushed for this change, more than once, but it was either held up or blocked elsewhere in the structure of the company. Or they couldn’t agree on a plan to implement the change. Or something.

Understandably, some newsroom employees read my blog post as saying that the system wasn’t changed because they are white and didn’t care enough about racist comments to make the change. I’d be upset at that suggestion, too, if I had been fighting to get it changed for two years.

I was not intending to say that the 97 percent white newsroom didn’t want the racist story comments dealt with – they clearly did, from the top editor on down. I was saying that the absence of more people of color on the staff and in the leadership of the newsroom failed to provide the impetus to get it done. Impetus that would have overcome company structure and decision-making process.

Lack of newsroom diversity affects what we do in ways that we don’t realize. It’s a topic that deserves a lot more attention, and I’ll publish a separate post devoted to this topic soon.

UPDATE #2: I wrote a separate post about the question of newsroom diversity. It’s here.

Public forum invites input on changing New Haven Register story comment policy

3 Nov

A public forum on changing the New Haven Register’s online story comment policy will be held at 6 p.m. tonight (Nov. 3) at the New Haven Public Library, 133 Elm St.

For a few months, a group of staff at the newspaper led by Metro Editor Ed Stannard have been working on the draft of new guidelines for what kind of comments should not be allowed on NHRegister.Com. Last week, Managing Editor Mark Brackenbury announced that the newspaper would be switching to a system in which staff will review comments before they’re posted rather than after the fact.

Mark’s column generated a huge response – 274 comments were made at last check, including a great deal of back-and-forth discussion between readers, Mark and me.

Recurring themes in those comments included:

* Screening comments beforehand (or at all?) is censorship, and the Register already is too heavy-handed in removing comments that have been posted.

* The Register’s editors do or will allow their personal political beliefs to influence what comments they allow or delete.

* The Register is kowtowing to public officials who don’t like to be criticized.

* This is all about how liberal staff at the Register are and it’s all designed to silent conservative voices. There were about 100 variations of this comment: “EVERYONE knows this is being done to justify screening out all messages except those from bleeding-heart anarchist liberals.”

* The site should require “registration” instead, and use that to better screen or improve commenting, while continuing to allow comments to go up without prior screening.

* Anonymity is the problem, and the Register should require registration with verified name, address, phone number – real identity.

* Some have stopped commenting because of the toxic environment and would welcome the new system because they’ll feel safe again to participate in the discussion.

* People need a thicker skin … if you think a comment is offensive, just ignore it.

* The new system is necessary because the site has been taken hostage by a small group of “trolls” that post racist, hateful and offensive comments, dragging the discussion into a back-and-forth about it instead of a real discussion of the issue.

* Race is at the heart of most of the offensive comments on the site, and a great deal of the cries of “censorship” from some readers. Stories about crime in New Haven continually have racist and offensive comments made.

There’s lots to be said and discussed about all of these points. I’m expecting tonight’s discussion to raise additional points. When we made a similar switch in Torrington, we held a public forum and the people who showed up in person to comment took a completely opposite view of those who were commenting about the new policy anonymously on the web.

 

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