News Leadership 3.0

November 05, 2009

Learning to love comments

Knoxville News Sentinel’s Jack Lail describes steps his organization took to improve the online conversation.

The hate-hate relationship between news organizations and commenters on their Web sites may be improving, thanks to smart journalists who see the value of engaging their users in discussion on line and are willing to develop strategies to make the conversation better for everyone.

Jack Lail, Director of News Innovation of the Knoxville News Sentinel, exemplifies that attitude. He shared his news organization’s approach to comments at a Webinar at Poynter’s News University Thursday.

The key, Lail said, is to get users involved in moderating the discussion.

“It starts with the users. We asked them to help us moderate what they found unacceptable on the site. We needs the ones who are commenting as wall as those who aren’t commenting to help us keep the conversation healthy.”

Lail outlined five steps to improving comments on
1. Give users tools to help manage the conversation.’s redesign this summer gave community members the ability for community to take down comments or ban users subject to approval by the staff.
2. Recognize mitigating factors. For example, misinformation in comments threads tends to be corrected pretty quickly by other users, Lail said.
3. Develop a strategic understanding.Underscore the value of comments to the news organization and use issues that arise as a springboard to conversation on best practices.
4.Put technology in service of goals.In addition to enabling users to flag inappropriate comments, allows users to hide comments, staff monitor comments from newly registered commenters and freezes comment threads or disallows them on certain stories. Knoxnews uses profanity filers. Editors and reporters can use RSS feeds to monitor comments.
5. Train the staff. The newsroom recently expanded the responsibity for monitoring comments to virtually every editor on the staff and reporters are encouraged to be present in comments on their stories—responding to commenter questions, for example. Lail said the newsroom has held brown bags to discuss issues around managing comments, including when to take them down or ban users, “terms of engagement” with users, and setting and enforcing boundaries of civil debate.

Lail’s organization focused on comments as part of the Associated Press Managing Editors Credibility Project and NewsU will present five more Webinars on APME credibility project. I was particularly interested in attending because civic engagement with news is a focus of my fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Lail said decided to look at comments after being inundated with racist and other unacceptable comments on stories about a horrific murder case in which the victims were white and the suspects black. In May, the news organization hosted a community forum that included the mother of one of the murder victims. As a result of that session, decided to “be more ruthless” about taking down offensive comments and banning trolls (users who live to pick fights) quickly.

Lail’s message—that comments can be kept civil and that they must be part of any news organization’s agenda—is an important one. The digital public isn’t going to be leaving the civic table any time soon. The real question is whether journalists and news organizations will play host to the public or it will find engagement elsewhere.


Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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