It is common in discussions about story commenting on news sites — whether the discussion is internal or with our readers and users — to blur distinctions between online posts and letters to the editor that appear in print. Both typically involve reactions to published news, but that's usually where the similarities end at most newspapers, and I don't think it is particularly useful to view story comments as letters' online parallel.
• Online comments are typically more guttural — because they can be posted immediately, there's no moment of reflection before licking the stamp or hitting the "send" button and, even if the poster can subsequently delete a comment, no way to entirely rescind a remark before publication.
• Response to comments are, in turn, immediate, and tempers can flare over rash statements.
• The content of comments typically are not reviewed or approved by the newsroom before publication.
• The author of comments typically are not affirmed by the newsroom before publication.
I've commented at some length about the baneful effects — notably, the coarsening of the discourse — that results when people are allowed to snipe at each other from behind the veil of anonymity we afford them.There are a number of technological and logistical problems that keep us from doing that, and we're growing increasingly sensitive to the financial problems, too.
For whatever impediment we create for commenting — including eliminating the feature altogether — reduces page views, the amount of time users spend on a site and, as a result, its value to advertisers.
The Des Moines Register last week became the second Gannett newspaper to switch to a Facebook-driven commenting system, in a bid to clean up the negative posts that often come with anonymity. (The other paper is The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., according to an article at GanettBlog.blogspot.com.)
It's far too early to draw definitive conclusions for the Des Moines example, but GanettBlog made this pertinent observation:
Yesterday's big news in Des Moines -- and across the nation -- were the Republican presidential candidates' debates, held in nearby Ames. Chief political writer Jennifer Jacobs' account was published at about 11:30 last night. By 8 o'clock local time this morning, her article had drawn comments from a grand total of two people.
(You'll note that users of our Disqus commenting system can log in using their Facebook identities, but the Register system is something a bit different — it requires Facebook log-in. Of course, anyone can set up a dummy Facebook identity — or Twitter or LinkedIn or Google+ identity — and as such, this won't be fool-proof, either.)
It's possible user acceptance of Facebook log-ins will grow at De Moines and elsewhere. For example, and L.A. Times experiment in Facebook commenting on its blogs has produced spirited but courteous exchanges.
That's what most newspaper companies are aiming for — well, that and profit.