Empire nixes Web comments on stories

Publisher says blogs are too susceptible to anonymous vitriol

Posted: Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Juneau Empire on Friday put the kibosh on Internet readers' comment forums.

"This is a tradeoff that's very easy for me to make right now. Does it cost us a little bit of traffic? Maybe so," said publisher Bob Hale, who said the comments had devolved into a "feeding frenzy" too often.

Story comments will go away until further notice, but readers will still have options to express their views online and in print.

While comment forums are now de rigueur on Internet news sites, Empire readers who want to express their opinions will have to do it the old-fashioned way - by e-mailing a letter to the editor. A link to editor@juneauempire.com will appear after each story.

The Empire will keep the VoxBox questions, the reader forums that appear on separate pages.

The newspaper's management has been mulling over the effects of end-of-story forums, popularly known as the "blogs," since they first appeared early last year.

A hateful comment this weekend that wasn't removed for two days was the last straw.

"When it gets to a certain level," Hale said, "And I'm talking about way beyond any modicum of civility - that's when I don't want to play."

Managing editor Charles Westmoreland said the he doesn't have the manpower to deal with problematic comments.

The newsroom has shrunk to 11 full-time positions from 15 this time last year, with two layoffs and two positions lost to attrition.

The Empire has about 12,000 unique online readers each day, about three times more than the number of print copies. Comments ranged from none to hundreds, depending on the topic.

The web team was for keeping the forums.

Comments drive substantial traffic, are largely self-moderated, and bring valuable viewpoints that the Empire wouldn't otherwise have, said web director Hayden Hoke.

Hoke said that hundreds of comments each day are flagged by users, and most inappropriate comments disappear from community moderation.

But the blurbs that caused complaint sometimes became headaches for Westmoreland and other managers.

For reporters, comments were a mixed bag - and that's aside from comments on their work. Reporters have mined comments for story tips, for instance.

"I think they gave us a resource to know what other people were thinking," said reporter Eric Morrison.

But some sources cited fear of comments as a reason not to be quoted in the paper.

Management batted around ideas for encouraging more civil discussions, including addressing readers about the problems. In the end, the Empire's management team saw the commenters' anonymity as an intractable problem.

"I would not have any issue with the reader comments if we could just put people's actual names," said Hale.

The Empire's web technology, which is provided by its parent company, Morris Communications, doesn't allow full-name posting. Nor does it allow "opt-in" comments, available only if someone chooses to see them by clicking to a separate page, Hoke said.

The comments could return if the Empire's access to technology improves, Westmoreland said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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