Comment civility was the topic du jour in journalism circles last week, as Arianna Huffington said the Huffington Post plans to end anonymous comments.
Anyone who has scrolled down on the HuffPo knows that the site has a problem. Leaving the comment section a realm of anarchy wasn’t an option, as new research shows negative comments seriously damage a site’s brand. Yet as Mathew Ingram argues, it’s at least debatable whether ending anonymity will have the desired result.
The dilemma isn’t limited to the big media sites, either, as even the websites of local newspapers can be victimized by trolls. Any newspaper which hopes to grow its digital presence (and show me the newspaper that doesn’t) thus needs to think about an appropriate troll control strategy.
Such a strategy is about more than just preventing trollish behavior. It’s about fostering strong community discussions.
Local newspapers are uniquely poised to create strong communities simply because of the local commonalities shared by their readers. And nothing leads to brand loyalty like a strong community. Newspapers who commit to building a great Web community will thus reap the rewards.
The best starting place for newspaper troll control and community formation is this old post by Anil Dash (via Ingram). Dash, a veteran of the blogosphere, locates the solution in simple principles of community-building: dedicated moderators, a clear comment policy, accountable identities for commenters, simple tools for flagging bad comments, and a budget to support community formation.
That may sound like a tall order for local newspapers from a technological and budgetary standpoint. But there’s a simple first move that can help a paper move towards a vibrant community discussion: ask journalists to serve as moderators on their own articles.
In doing so, they will be following the practice of experienced online writers like Dash, who actively engage with their readers and shape the discussion. The best bloggers don’t just write great posts: they create a comment culture that increases the value of the piece through community engagement. Although journalists ought to be supported (read: paid) for this increased responsibility, tying community engagement to writing is the best way to begin creating a healthy discussion on a paper’s site.