PORTLAND — If anyone tried to sum up the last few days in Maine media-watching, they’d have a hard time doing it better than Kara Matuszewski, who said this morning on Twitter:
“Well if nothing else @PressHerald publisher Richard [Connor] knows how to get attention.”
In case you don’t follow Maine media goings-on, MaineToday Media — owner of the Maine newspapers Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and their websites — shut down online comments sometime Tuesday evening. (Connor is MaineToday Media’s top dog.) The explanation for which, now removed, explained the rationale behind this decisions:
“While it may be an unpopular decision with some, we made it because what once served as a platform for civil civic discourse and reader interaction has increasingly become a forum for vile,crude,insensitive, and vicious postings. No story subject seems safe from hurtful and vulgar comments.”
MaineToday also said they would “consider reopening our commenting section in the future by making contributors accountable in some way for what they say.”
This point seemed to have been largely overlooked by the swift response from a slew of readers who pounced on the Press Herald (which served as a proxy target for praise and criticism alike) for everything from “closing community” to giving in to choosing to kill dialogue rather than finding a solution. MPBN and the Portland Daily Sun both ran stories about the comment shutdown.
The swift response made sense at the time (as I argued yesterday, a newspaper acting this way is news and deserves comment), but seems a little premature today, as the newspaper chain launches a new comments system powered by Intense Debate. Damien Kiesow pointed out at Poynter sums up the change:
“Intense Debate appears to meet many of the criteria for increased accountability Connor laid out in his original memo. For readers, the system allows a variety of different log-in options, including Facebook and Twitter. For news staffers, the system includes advanced moderation tools, such as filtering, blocking or deleting of comments by keyword, e-mail address or IP address.
“It is not clear if the paper plans to enforce a ‘real name’ policy, as nicknames are still currently being allowed. However, Intense Debate can be configured to allow users with Facebook accounts, but not Twitter, for example, to log-in and comment. That would significantly increase the percentage of users commenting on the site using verified identities.
Intense Debate is also used by the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, the flagship newspaper in a chain of publications Connor owns in Pennsylvania”
The move to this sort of comment moderation is not without precedent in Maine. This summer, the Bangor Daily News opted to use Disquss, which operates similarly to Intense Debate. Both services offer a feature that moves comments that receive good feedback to the fore, though it’s not clear whether MaineToday has chosen to enable this feature.
I’m sure Tony Ronzio, editor at the Kennebec Journal, wasn’t alone in saying he’d “thought about newspapers, the web and reader involvement more during the past 5 days than in months.” Twirps were a-tweeting during the last few days about the role of reader comments on newspapers’ websites and how best to encourage dialogue without sinking into the muck. Hopefully MaineToday’s new system accomplishes this. I’m sure all the publicity didn’t hurt, either.
(Disclosure: I spend my working life these days editing copy, laying out pages and waxing philosophical with Tony Ronzio at the Kennebec Journal in Augusta. By extension, I also work for the KJ’s sister paper, The Morning Sentinel in Waterville.)