Scott Stanford: Newspaper makes right call on online comments
January 19, 2013
Steamboat Springs — "This policy will fail. It is beyond naive and stupid to think it will work."
— Scott Wedel on Feb. 20, 2012, commenting on the newspaper's decision to eliminate anonymous comments on SteamboatToday.com.
It has been 11 months since Steamboat Today stopped allowing anonymous comments on SteamboatToday.com.
Scott Wedel isn't a fan. "In terms of the tone, it's completely unchanged," Wedel told me last week. "And we have lost some really good commenters."
Wedel works in property management in Steamboat Springs and has lived in the Yampa Valley for 20 years. But he perhaps is known best for his frequent comments on our website. Of the 7,800 comments posted to our site since we implemented the names policy, 800 — more than 10 percent — have come from Wedel.
We implemented our new policy Feb. 20, 2012. I analyzed the policy's impacts in response to an inquiry from an editor at another newspaper whose site still allows anonymous comments. The editor is growing weary of policing anonymous posts and debating anonymous individuals who get upset when their comments are deleted. He's researching alternative approaches and wanted to know how we were doing.
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My overall impression is the policy has been a major success. Initially, I was a skeptic. I worried we would lose significant traffic. Give credit to Editor Brent Boyer, who had faith that most readers would appreciate and embrace a comments section where a real name was attached to every post.
Turns out, Brent was right. Today, the comments section has more credibility than ever before. Posters are accountable for what they say. Complaints are infrequent, and the site is much easier to moderate.
Of course, one reason it's easier to moderate is that we get a lot fewer comments. Comments are down more than 50 percent since the new policy was implemented. From 2009 through 2011, we averaged 47 comments per day. Since Feb. 20, 2012, we have averaged 23. The decline wasn't unanticipated. In 2009, when we went to a policy of verifying identities before allowing users to post anonymously, we saw a 40 percent drop in comments.
But it should be noted that comments account for just a fraction of overall traffic on our site. Last year, visits to SteamboatToday.com rose 11 percent to an all-time high of 10,212 per day, while pageviews rose slightly. Advertising revenue on SteamboatToday.com rose 22 percent from 2011 to 2012.
Such numbers don't impress Wedel, who thinks our online comments still include too many personal attacks. He said that such attacks and the lack of anonymity discourage many from contributing to the forum and that a better approach would be a more rigorously moderated site that allowed anonymity. "It's still not a place for the gentle spirit," he said.
Why, then, does Wedel contribute to the site so frequently? "The forum is for those prepared to fight," Wedel said. "I am willing to step into the brawl because I think I can win most of the battles of insults."
Besides, he told me, "I've long been noted as a person who doesn't give a damn what other people think of me."
I think Wedel is interesting and that his contributions to the website, often critical of the newspaper, have value and frequently spark further discussion. But I disagree with him about the tone. While there still are pointed exchanges between individuals in the comments section, there can be no debating that the level of respect has gone way up since we started requiring names.
Most newspaper websites still allow anonymous comments, but I have yet to meet a publisher or editor who really likes the practice. Fear of losing audience holds many back, but hopefully the tide is starting to shift. As our newspaper and others have shown, trading quantity for quality is a trade worth making when it comes to reader comments.
Scott Stanford is general manager of the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Call him at 970-871-4202 or email sstanford@SteamboatToday.com.