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Online commenting has evolved

Way back in the old days – by which I mean the 1990s and early 2000s – newspapers and other online news sites began offering comment sections, where readers could respond, react, elaborate and debate the stories and weighty issues of the day.

The hope was that the comments section (or “blogs” as someone at the Register dubbed them long ago) would be a place for high-minded debate and learned discourse, perhaps a place where insiders or whistleblowers could add information or expose wrongdoing.

Mostly, it didn’t work out that way. Much like the Internet as a whole, comment sections became places to crack jokes, make snide remarks, carry on petty feuds, or advance commercial or political pet causes. On the darker side, they also became ways for people to spread misinformation, whip up conspiratorial fears, or abuse one another. At their very worst, they became cesspools of racism, misogyny, bullying, and hatred.

The administrators of these comment sections worked very hard to keep the darker stuff from appearing for public view, which is surprisingly laborious work, involving hours per day of reading, sifting, fact-checking and refereeing. But news sites kept doing it because these were, in many cases, the only places for publicly accessible debate and discussion online.

But over the years, something important changed. Discussion became a key feature of the emerging social media world, which developed in the first decade of the century (Facebook, formerly exclusively a university-based site, opened up to the public only in 2006. Twitter saw its very first tweet that same year). Now, 10 years later, you can post, repost, like, comment, pin, tweet, discuss, react or anything else you like on dozens — more like hundreds — of sites. Facebook and Twitter remain the biggies, but there are Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, Vimeo, Tumblr, Snapchat, Google+, Reddit, Next Door, and more every day.

The combined move of online discussion to these social media sites, along with the ongoing difficulty of keeping comment sections civil and relevant, has led many news organizations to reconsider their comment policies. Outlets including Reuters, Popular Science, Chicago Sun-Times, CNN, Re/code, Bloomberg have eliminated or sharply restricted their comments sections. The Washington Post and New York Times have become more selective about which stories are open for commenting. The popular online discussion group Reddit recently founded an associated, but separate, online news site that did not have a comment section at all (readers were directed to the comment-oriented Reddit pages).

After much study and deliberation, The Napa Valley Register and its associated weeklies have decided to follow suit. Starting earlier this month, we turned off commenting on all stories. We may bring them back on a case-by-case basis, such as for stories with a strong public safety element – say after an earthquake or serious flood – but the default position is off.

We did not take this step lightly, but for us the cost-benefit analysis no longer made sense given the easy and free availability of so many social media outlets where our stories and important local issues are freely debated every day.

The math works out like this. In the last six months, the top 10 commenters on the Register site accounted for 27 percent of all submissions. The top 25 commenters accounted for more than 44 percent, while the top 50 accounted for 56 percent of all comments submitted. That’s out of a population of many tens of thousands of people who read the printed paper or view the website every day.

Moderating those comments required about an hour per day of staff time, sometimes more, seven days per week. That meant we were using a full work shift every week primarily to attend to the needs of just 50 people.

Given our tight staffing, this seemed like a poor use of resources.

Readers are still free to comment or discuss our stories on Facebook, Twitter, Nextdoor, or whatever social media channels they frequent. They are still free to request corrections, point out errors, or add information by emailing or calling me or the reporter responsible for the story.

And, of course, the letters to the editor section remains robust and popular. We encourage you to take advantage of that outlet. We want to hear from you, and we want our readers to engage with one another, but the era of the self-hosted comment section on news sites seems to be passing away.

Note: A more detailed analysis of our comment statistics over the last six months, along with a list of the top 50 commenters, is attached to the online version of this column.

You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or Follow him on Twitter @NVREditor.

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Sean has been editor of the Napa Valley Register since April of 2014. His previous credits include the Press Democrat, The Weekly Calistogan, The Washington Times and Time and People magazines.

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