By John Ensslin, 2011-12 SPJ President | December 5th, 2011
There are some alarming trends in the news business these days.
Every day seems to bring fresh news of layoffs and buyouts of valued colleagues. Years of experience and institutional knowledge are walking out newsroom doors.
So, when there’s something cheerful about our industry to report, I tend to pounce on it.
What I find encouraging this week is that more news organizations are trying a different approach to shut down the vicious mosh pits of anonymous commentary following news stories.
For years, news organizations have grappled with the management of online reader comments, which often revolve around the same few people trading increasingly angry invective that has little relationship to the story above it.
The clean-up solution more newsrooms are deploying? Facebook.
Those of you who attended SPJ’s 2010 national convention in Las Vegas may remember Rob Curley, executive editor of the Las Vegas Sun’s new-media division, discussing this.
Curley and the Sun long have been on the cutting edge of technology to expand the boundaries of what news organizations can do to improve coverage of local communities.
“Being yourself online is the new black,” Curley said, going on to explain how his paper’s website was using Facebook to improve the quality of discourse in comment sections following news stories.
At the Sun, folks wanting to post comments anonymously could still do so — but the paper devised a system giving more prominence to people who used their Facebook accounts to post comments under their real names.
What Curley and his colleagues found was that by giving priority to actual people as opposed to anonymous posters, the quality of the conversation improved and became somewhat more civil. A wider range of people were also taking part.
This trend of using Facebook continued this spring, when the Los Angeles Times conducted a similar experiment. The paper solicited comments both through anonymous posters and Facebook. Lo and behold, the conversations grew more civil. And perhaps just as importantly, Web traffic increased. Click here to see more.
Other papers have followed suit. My former employer, The Gazette in Colorado Springs, switched to Facebook comments. Click here for a humorous column on the changeover by my friend Barry Noreen.
I realize Facebook is not a cure-all for this situation. Some anonymous posters have simply switched to creating fictitious Facebook pages. Critics have questioned the wisdom of outsourcing reader commentary to a social media network with its own set of rules.
But many news outlets lack the resources to moderate comments at the bottom of stories. That they’re deploying solutions aimed at elevating civic discourse is admirable.
I’ll take it as a sign of hope in these tough times.