Thread Control: Lessons from USA Today

The newspaper's unfiltered use of reader comments underscores the challenges of widening the online dialogue without offending readers

When USA Today's staff redesigned the online arm of the national newspaper, they included plenty of space for ordinary readers to "join the conversation." The site, owned by Gannett (GCI), has to compete with an array of news sources on the new, you-oriented Web—where bloggers break news, enthusiasts write encyclopedias, and readers can determine which articles get top billing. In such a world, explains USA Today Executive Editor Kinsey Wilson, reader comments "augment people's understanding of the news."

To that end, by the time of the Mar. 3 redesign, the newspaper had stopped prescreening reader comments—though it will remove remarks flagged by other readers as abusive. Still, it's debatable whether all the comments that stay up do much to illuminate a subject. Consider the responses to a piece on the apprehension of a man accused of killing his wife. "This guy looks insane," wrote one person. "Of course he killed her." Another reader lamented that the police hadn't let the man, found in a state park, freeze and then be eaten by wolves.

Avoiding Offense

While hardly representative of all the responses to the day's news, the remarks underscore the challenges facing a growing host of print publications—including Dow Jones' (DJ) The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times (NYT), and BusinessWeek, owned by the McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP)—that use reader comments and forums to differentiate their online outlets. As publications adopt such new media methods, they are grappling with how best to use and moderate them without offending readers and hurting their reputation for fairness.

The job is somewhat easier online than in print, thanks to a section in the 1996 Communication Decency Act that shields owners of Web forums from the comments made in them. "In essence, Congress has said that the soapbox should not be held liable for what the speaker has said," says Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit public advocacy group focused on free speech online.

Legal protections, however, do not extend to the court of public opinion. Thus, just as enlightened online discussions may encourage readers to become more engaged with a publication, offensive comments risk turning them away. Many publications, for example, open their sites up to discussion only in cases when there is a story that lends itself to different viewpoints, in hopes of avoiding idle reader chatter or "noise."

Helpful Tools

The Wall Street Journal bolstered its online site in January, after announcing it was shrinking its paper edition (see, 1/3/07, "Journal Blazes Newspapers' New Trail"). The online edition allows comments on columnists' blogs and in designated debate forums, but not on every story. "We focus on forums on the columnists where there is already a point of view," says Bill Grueskin, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Online. "A straight-up news story doesn't get people going in the same way a column would."

The paper also screens out what Grueskin calls "ad hominem attacks" and "ridiculous profanity." However, Grueskin says, the number of comments it removes is small. He attributes the decorum of the conversation, in part, to the Journal's request that users register with their full name and hometown. Though the paper's staff does not check to ensure users are providing accurate identities, many people do use identifying information that, potentially, makes them more thoughtful when posting comments.

On USA Today's site, most readers use Internet handles. But the publication has tools that it hopes will encourage thoughtful discussion. The site uses profanity-filtering technology, and Wilson says there is a "network editor" who will interject comments in conversations that have gone too far off-topic or have become a "slugfest" between individuals. It also has user pages, viewable by the public, that index individuals' contributions. Thus, readers can better assess, from a user's history, the value of his or her comments.

Refining the Process

USA Today has stopped prescreening every comment. Like many news sites, it allows users to report abusive postings. "The sheer volume of the comments makes it impossible to monitor every one in real time. And there is an expectation on the part of the audience for a kind of immediacy," says Wilson. "We are not intervening with a heavy hand." "reserves the right to excerpt or edit for clarity any reviews that are posted," according to a disclaimer on the site.

Wilson, Grueskin, and the editors of others sites are still exploring new ways to involve and engage the readers, as well as how to edit them—if at all. Grueskin believes The Wall Street Journal will have more user comments in the future, not fewer. Wilson also says the trend will be toward putting more control to moderate discussion into the users' hands. He envisions a future where users will have the ability to vote for comments they enjoy or, potentially, highlight certain users.

User-generated sites, such as Digg, have used similar technologies for a while with varying degrees of success. Still, Wilson is hopeful. "We are trying to make it easier for people to get a bead on the news of the day," says Wilson. "We will succeed if we are able to apply intelligent filters in the end."

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