DEAR READER: How should the Missourian moderate online conversations?

Saturday, November 26, 2011 | 4:58 p.m. CST; updated 5:20 p.m. CST, Wednesday, November 30, 2011


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*Update: As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, any survey submissions we receive will not be considered toward the report we are compiling. Thank you to everyone who sent us their feedback. Responses might be checked again at a later date.

Dear Reader,

Part of the mission of the Missourian is to foster community conversation, and the most direct way we do that is through the online comments on our website. Our goal, as our policy states, is "to create a space for open dialogue between the many diverse voices of our community, and we hope that you will analyze, comment on and challenge the content you find here."

Regular readers of comments on news sites would probably agree that what happens there doesn't always reflect the goal of open, diverse dialogue. And in fact, reasonable individuals will disagree about what that should look like.

In fact, reasonable editors sometimes disagree about what that should look like!

Our goal today is to ask you to weigh in on what kind of conversation meets your personal standards. We want to fine tune our approach, with better consistency as a goal, and we want to hear from you. Whether you are yourself a commenter or not, I hope you'll take a look at the questions posed below, and let us know what comments you find appropriate.

In making the quiz, two members of the community outreach team (Shaina Cavazos and Rachel Rice) took inspiration from some actual comments left on our site. None of them, though, is an actual comment verbatim.

We're working on improving your experience on our site (read my column from last week about banning the spam), and I hope you take a few minutes to make your voice heard.

Joy Mayer is the director of community outreach for the Missourian. She can be reached at and at 573-882-8182.

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Joy Mayer November 29, 2011 | 4:29 p.m.

Thanks so much to the 70+ people who have responded so far. You've provided a wealth of valuable insight and feedback.

Many of you are telling us that heated, and often partisan, arguments between the same few people serve to discourage you from participating in online comments, and we'll be exploring ways that we as journalists can help open up the conversations.

My team and I will be sharing more complete results with you soon, but I wanted to jump in today to say thanks.

Joy Mayer
Director of community outreach
Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin November 30, 2011 | 11:33 a.m.

Unfortunately, the goal of "open dialogue between the many diverse voices of our community" isn't really met here -- or at the Trib. Instead, as noted above, readers see arguments, comments, etc. "from the same few people," which probably does discourage diversity of voice.

That may be one of the unintended consequences of reader commentary directly beneath stories -- a kind of online club sets up, with mostly the same few participants plus the occasional "lobbyist" looking to push this or that cause.

The Trib actually had a great reader commentary community when they attached comments to a one-on-one relationship with a given reporter through that reporter's blog.

Class Notes/Janese Silvey (Heavin) and Jason Rosenbaum's statehouse blogs were standouts that used this model. These blogs actually helped change policy, and were so widely read they were routinely quoted in the halls of power.

Readers seemed to feel more of an obligation to show intelligence, panache, and civility given the relationship with the reporter. They also tended to comment on their area of specific interest or expertise -- education, crime, state government, etc.

When the Trib decided to go to a "comments beneath stories model" that was essentially "reporter agnostic," they lost that one-on-one reader-reporter relationship.

The current model encourages more anonymous, mean-spirited "drive by" comments and as many had warned, a decline in the tone, tenor, and quality of argument and analysis among readers.

It also encourages a more dilettantish approach, both here and at the Trib, where the same few people comment on virtually every story.

The Missourian, fortunately, requires reader ID, but otherwise, both newspapers have no online reader-reporter relationship of the types previously enjoyed at the Trib.

The Trib's pay wall further reduced reader participation there, exacerbating the "very few voices" problem. A hard right tone has since overtaken much of the reader commentary.

(Report Comment)
Gary Straub November 30, 2011 | 12:54 p.m.

I wholeheartedly agree with Mike's comment. The consistent attacks by a handful of people who apparently believe that they are the holder's of the ark of truth, have made me very reluctant to participate. While I enjoy a good argument, accusations are neither on topic or helpful. Like most community problems there are adequate rules to stop this from occurring, however the problem is enforcement. It sometimes appears that the enforcers enjoy watching what happens when the hornet's nest is stirred. I would suggest that if the moderators would strictly enforce two of the rules - no name calling and staying on topic - the return to civil discussion would follow.

(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer November 30, 2011 | 4:15 p.m.

Mike and Gary,

Thanks so much for the thoughtful responses.

Mike, I completely agree that comments are especially effective when the commenters and reporters have a rapport. It's more fun and productive to talk to a person, not just a brand.

Calling a post a "blog" sometimes encourages journalists to write with more personality, and that in turn encourages conversation. (I happen to think more authoritative, personable writing would be good for journalism in general. I also think a lot of great reporting is produced by "bloggers," a point made beautifully in this post:

One of the reasons we encourage our reporters and editors to participate in the comments is to create that connection. But unlike with bloggers, or television journalists, our bylines often stay faceless and personality-less. We do encourage journalists to fill out profile information about themselves (you can see mine by clicking on my name at the top of this comment).

Gary, it's amazing how the same arguments crop up on completely different stories, isn't it?! Our policy actually doesn't include anything about staying on topic. Do you think it should? Or should journalists jump in to redirect conversations?

We're gathering up responses to the questionnaire and will have a column to publish probably this weekend letting everyone know what we learned, and what we're working on as a result.

Thanks for your time.

Joy Mayer
Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Gary Straub December 1, 2011 | 10:24 a.m.

Joy, I was unaware that staying on topic was not policy, and yes I strongly believe it should or just have a free-for-all discussion group. I also agree very strongly with your view that reporters and editors should be involved in any discussion that came about because of their writings or the change of IE; editing. This could only bring, IMHO, a better understanding of the topic and an interjection of facts that the reporter researched. And, on your side it may allow the reporters to find more information on a subject which could lead to another story or at times a correction.
Discourse is one of the foundations of a free society.Thank you for taking an active interest in this.

(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer December 1, 2011 | 10:50 a.m.

@Gary, that's really interesting to hear. We've been discussing this in the newsroom this morning, watching as conversations around seemingly non-confrontational issues turn political and contentious.

We'll definitely keep exploring how journalists can stay involved in conversations. We talked about it in a newsroom meeting this week, and the reporters seemed generally excited about the possibilities that would afford them. I'm thrilled to know you think it's a good idea. Thanks for taking the time to say so.

Joy Mayer
Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)

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