Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Gannett confirms comment moderation switch

The company started outsourcing a key part of online comment moderation at its dozens of U.S. websites late last week, the Hattiesburg American disclosed today, confirming a Gannett Blog reader's report two weeks ago.

The Mississippi newspaper's note to readers follows an editorial last week in the Green Bay Press-Gazette in Wisconsin. Editors there said software company Pluck -- which already powers social media tools on GCI sites -- is now in charge of moderating comments that readers have flagged as abusive. That task had previously been handled on the local level by editors at Gannett sites.

"Under the new system," the Press-Gazette editors say, "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."

Pluck will delete comments, or allow them to remain, based on the paper's "established guidelines." Those guides ask readers to "keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent."

Given the guidelines' rather broad terms, however, it's unclear how Pluck employees hundreds or thousands of miles away will know to independently gauge local community tastes. Moreover, the Press-Gazette and Hattiesburg American don't say whether those Pluck staffers are based in the United States -- or offshore, where foreign employees might not grasp some of the nuances of what readers in Wisconsin or Mississippi find acceptable.

Should comment moderation be outsourced -- or should it stay local? Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write jimhopkins[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the rail, upper right.

[Image: today's Press-Gazette, Newseum]


  1. So, in Hattiesburg, the only comments that will be deleted are the ones readers report as abusive. It doesn't amke sense to me that readers have to do the real work, and a company reaps the financial rewards. Gannett----readers are not stupid.

  2. But in Hattiesburg -- and everywhere across Gannett -- responsibility for flagging abusive comments has always been mostly on the reader. I don't believe the typical Gannett newsroom has had time to monitor all the comments posted.

  3. Some of them actually do try to read every comment, but it's just not possible. And since so many of them (at least in Atlanta) are trolls and racists, comments voted as abusive are in equal parts (a) actually-abusive comments and (b) thoughtful, well-reasoned comments that the trolls don't agree with.

    There's really no way to win, except to not play.

  4. I suspect many publishers would like to discontinue comments altogether. But newspapers can't give up the pageviews comments generate.

  5. Hey, Jim, how about hiring Pluck for the troll. I am a little sick of his abuse.
    On the Hattiesburg decision, I think this is more an accountability issue. These comments have become a real pain because people who are angry or attacked want to appeal. As someone who has answered these reader phone calls, people get really upset. But you are also right about wanting the clicks because there is real money in each one of them. So when someone calls up to bitch why something is allowed on the site, why their comment was killed, or why the paper allows one poster to post such comments, the paper can now say it wasn't their responsibility, but Pluck that did it. You can call Pluck in India long distance if you want to talk to someone about it.

  6. Yup, 4:48, we sure are click whores, aren't we? How disheartening.

  7. So, it's just reader-reported abuse that will be monitored? And an editor will be "on call" to assist with Pluck queries on said abuse? At 3:12 a.m.?

  8. I think that puts way too much responsibility on the reader. Imagine if you, Jim, relied only on readers of this blog to report abuse. Once again, the miserable company is taking a shortcut that will fail. Why bother to even pay pluck?

  9. Gannett actually hired a Canadian firm to do moderation for all the sites. Jon Burns in Digital is running the project. It seems like they are cleaning over 30% of the comments on Gannett's websites.

  10. The Jackson Sun eliminated comments at the bottom of stories months ago.

  11. Ok, so USA Today is contracting out Travel Tips to an outside company, and now Hattiesburg is contracting out weeding out flame wars from its comment section. Hmmm. Do I spot a trend here in these days as corporate is considering even more cuts?

  12. I think you'll find that comments account for less than one percent of a newspaper's site traffic, yet they take an inordinate amount of time to administer.

  13. Pluck is part of Demand Media (which handles USA Today's hack Travel Tips), and doesn't have people on-site to monitor comments. I would guess they're dealing with comments using low-paid freelancers connected to the Demand pool of workers.

  14. Matt Neistein7/07/2010 11:12 AM

    Bad, bad idea.

    This is just another step in the hypocrisy of the news industry's future: Most every newspaper company realizes it needs to go "local, local, local," but take every chance it gets to outsource news functions that should be local.

    The problems here are numerous. For one, this only addresses those posts readers find offensive. What if an inappropriate post isn't flagged? Two, what if a post is flagged that Pluck finds inappropriate that a local editor — with a sense of context and place — thinks is OK? Does it get deleted? Three, local editors will not be able to explain to readers why their posts were inappropriate and were thus deleted, because there's a pretty good chance the local editor will not have seen them. Four, it gives editors and reporters another reason to ignore the comments section, which would seem to undermine the very valuable give-and-take that makes the Web important to local news outlets.

    Where does it stop? Why not hire a company to pick which letters to the editor run? Why not hire a company to produce your world wire page daily? Why have anyone locally do anything for a local newspaper, since everything can ultimately be outsourced?

    This sends an extremely poor message to readers: We don't have the time to read what you say. But hey, subscriptions can be found here!

    And the downward spiral continues. *sigh*

  15. I'm a producer at a large metro (not a Gannett paper). I can tell you that comments now account for 5 percent of traffic now, so it's not insignificant. One rough estimate is that those views account for something like 40K in ad revenue per year. But we're likely spending more than that on moderation.

    We're in the midst of overhauling our entire commenting policy, all the way back to the question: "Why allow comments?" Of the comments on this post, Matt comes closest to our current thinking. Here's why:

    Many users are spending HOURS interacting with our content and other readers, yet our organization does nothing to either recognize or reap the benefits of this engagement. This is the web we're talking about here people - it's an interactive medium. We have an incredible resource of tips and content and real people that we generally ignore and deride.

    So we're going to move in that direction within six months -- and editors and reporters will have to be involved. I'm not guaranteeing it will work, but we're gonna try.

  16. As an editor, I try to read all the comments -- not just to patrol for misconduct, but to gather ideas and feedback about our coverage. By outsourcing moderation, Gannett is effectively encouraging newsrooms to ignore a valuable source of information.

  17. I wish you luck on the new direction, 1:26 p.m. At my Wisconsin site the editors make a push every now and then to have the reporters actually interact with the chatters on their stories. And then it fizzles since the reporters just can't find the time. Readers have given up on asking the business reporter anything about commerce in the city, since he doesn't respond, and the top brass does nothing about it. And the staff blogs are boring and not edited at all, so that's another sore spot.

    Being a large metro, you might be able to pull it off. We just don't have the resources anymore to make it all happen.

  18. Some of our biggest comment offenders work in the building.

    Stupid, because the editors know who they are - using your work email to get your anonymous user name? Really?

  19. The idea that reporters can be expected to personally monitor the comments on their own stories sounds wonderful until you do the math.

    If a reporter writes just two stories a day, five days a week, that's at least 40 stories a month they have to continue to look back on. And many user comments continue to be made on comments older than those.

    Most reporters have better things to do all day than click around on our own sites continually checking to see whether a reader has a fresh question. If reporters are going to be expected to weigh in on their own stories, then the window of expectation would need to be very short, just a day or two.

  20. I can't figure out what took them so long to fix this issue. The comments I've seen on the Courier Post site in South Jersey have been vicious, racist, and often obscene or profane while being vicious and racist. I flag the most egregious ones I see, but I still can't understand why a newspaper company would not want to make that a top priority to edit. Duh!

  21. The issue hasn't been fixed until these type of comments are kept from ever appearing in the first place. But that would require Gannett to hire legions of moderators to edit comments before they're published -- a step virtually no newspaper publisher has been willing to take. Meanwhile, the other solution -- eliminating comments altogether -- is untenable, because it would cost the company billions of free and so valuable pageviews.

  22. Craig Sevier8/08/2011 2:20 AM

    The comments at my site were so out of control, it became an embarrassment among staff and readers alike: lots of ugly name-calling was allowed to pass.

    Some staffing issue? Nope -- what wasn't allowed to pass was any actual critique of content, i.e, a news story -- and somebody had to make that Goebbels-like call over and over, and they did.

    To the site's credit, it is much improved now. Content is still hit-and-miss with lame, astoundingly amateurishly written stories what with the mantra of "Post it! Post it!," yet those are amid some very top-notch journalism (an odd mix, but the latter quality does my heart good!).

    Lately, the site's dialogue-dousing, prejudicial attacks seem to have indeed waned, but one has to wonder whether the damage left for so long has already been done in the public's eye, people telling me they dropped the site because of all the nauseous and hurtful trash in the comments.


Jim says: "Proceed with caution; this is a free-for-all comment zone. I try to correct or clarify incorrect information. But I can't catch everything. Please keep your posts focused on Gannett and media-related subjects. Note that I occasionally review comments in advance, to reject inappropriate ones. And I ignore hostile posters, and recommend you do, too."

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.