Response to @jny2: Single comment solution does not fit all

By Steve Outing

Civility (and lack thereof) on many news websites, the topic of my previous blog post, is clearly worth more discussion. A bit of brow-beating of me by Josh Young, social news editor for, today on Twitter gives me the opportunity to continue the conversation … and fight back:

@jny2 Seriously, @steveouting, what do you know about news sites handling tens of thousands of comments a day?

@jny2 I led huffpo’s comments operations for a year, till recently, and I can say that Steve’s piece is thin and unoriginal.

@jny2: @umairh what did you like so much about this unoriginal and, frankly, tepid “fix” for commenting at news sites?

Josh, I’ve been operating and reporting on online communities since 1994. Much has changed over the years, obviously. When I started my first forum (an e-mail discussion list for online-news professionals), we didn’t even have spam to deal with for a couple years. Some of our members preferred to remain anonymous; they let their words and their intellect speak for themselves. I don’t see that as much anymore, and on a professional forum someone not using his/her real name is less likely now to be taken seriously.

True, I have not run a site that handles tens of thousands of user comments a day.

HuffPost does better than most news sites at handling comments, which is hardly surprising. Unlike legacy news brands, HuffPost is an online pure-play where user participation is understood to be critical, and the site utilizes many features to make the comment experience better: Commenters can have “fans”; commenters can get “badges” to gain social status; community moderators watch over things; users can click “flag as abusive”; viewers of comments can select to read all comments, HuffPost editor picks comments, comments from the user’s social stream, etc. But the site still has trolls, and it’s far from perfect.

My suggestion was aimed at the news websites that don’t have the resources (or cultural imperative) to do a good job with controlling user comments, and where trolls run wild and the level of discussion is, for the most part, lame. That would describe many newspaper websites. They have a problem in need of solutions.

What might solve their problems would not be appropriate for other types of websites. Niche and professional sites, in general, have less of a problem with abusive commenters and trolls; there’s more agreement among the user base, whether it be rock climbers or elementary-school teachers. Even HuffPost has more homogeneity (left-leaning audience) than your average newspaper, which draws people across the spectrum of controversial topics who can get heated up quickly.

So, Josh, while you may find my suggestion “tepid,” it may be for you and HuffPost, but not for news sites that serve the broad political spectrum and lack the resources (or knowledge of solutions) that you do to devote to commenting.

I will admit to being idealistic when it comes to online community and discussion. You’ll find evidence of that in an old blog post of mine: “Ender’s Game and the intelligent ‘nets’.” Perhaps, in time, discussion forums will become what Orson Scott Card envisioned: valuable to society.

You could argue that some of the more prominent news brands have created user commenting that is of high quality and value: The Economist,, etc. For most news sites, and certainly the dominant one in my town, no way; the troll population and the lack of civility keeps out many of those who have something of value to contribute.

Josh: With your experience at HuffPost, what would you suggest as solutions for the type of news sites that I’m talking about?

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!

5 Responses to "Response to @jny2: Single comment solution does not fit all"

  1. Josh Young
    Josh Young 7 years ago .Reply

    Thank you for being a good sport, Steve, taking my “brow-beating,” and caring enough to “fight back.”

    The idea of a “discussion membership,” in which you can comment but are unable to read more than a snippet of what you’re commenting on, is just bizarre. Nearly preposterous, actually.

    It is so bizarre on its face, Steve, that, given your storied track record “reporting on online communities since 1994,” I expect you asked them basic questions about it. In order to have a decent idea of whether it’s actually a good idea, after all, you’d presumably want to know how many purchases of that particular plan readers have made. You’d also probably want to inquire about their strategy behind including it. And maybe there are other questions you asked. What did you learn about its actual efficacy?

    In case you didn’t get answers to those questions, however, I’ve asked them of the folks at Civil Beat. I sent a quick email to becivil [at] civilbeat [dot] com. I might have to go back and forth with them a few times before I get decent answers, and ultimately there’s no guarantee that they’ll tell me anything. But I’m not the reporter here either, so I pledge to report back once I hear from them, and in the meantime, I’m going to take a risk and pessimistically predict that their answers will underwhelm…at best.

    I highly, highly doubt that the folks at the Civil Beat can convince me that the “discussion membership” is genuinely motivated or actually functioning as a revenue-generating strategy apart from just having a plain vanilla paywall. Ultimately, the idea of paying $1 for a month’s worth of commenting on stories you can’t read is just plain dumb.

    So, though I confess that I haven’t done the reporting myself, I reject your contention that the Civil Beat’s “discussion membership” itself offers a solution to anyone’s troll problems.

    By the way, do you by chance know whether pays IntenseDebate for the latter’s service? If does pay, do you know how much?

  2. Steve Outing
    Steve Outing 7 years ago .Reply

    Josh: I agree that Civil Beat has some business-model “issues.” I’m more interested in the concept of a news site with comment quality/abuse issues using a “discussion membership” as a means to improve the value and quality. It would be an interesting experiment.

    You’re right: It’s nuts to allow 99-cent/month Discussion Members to post article comments but only see excerpts of articles unless they pay for the expensive ($19.99/month) full membership. My eye glossed over that incongruity when I looked at the Membership pricing chart.

    But Civil Beat also has standalone Discussions on Hawaii topics where it could make sense to promote quality discussion with the pricing scheme. It’s hardly an ideal example of a pay-to-comment strategy, though; I’ll have to look elsewhere.

    My opinion continues to be that (for *general news*) sites with a commenting problem, requiring commenters to attach their real names will control the trolls for the most part. (No need for pay-to-comment.) As long as there’s an option for moderated anonymity when it’s necessary, I’d like to see more news sites try this.

    Re: and IntenseDebate. The Camera doesn’t pay anything for use IntenseDebate’s commenting system, just as blogs using it don’t pay.

  3. Ken Sands
    Ken Sands 7 years ago .Reply

    Will the Civil Beat discussion model work? Hard to say. But it sure is worth a try. Look at Scout and Rivals, where premium boards are the primary feature of a $99 annual membership fee. I’d much rather pay to keep trolls out of (or limited by) a community of “passion.” I almost never comment on a site like HuffPo or Daily Camera.
    Josh, quantity is not quality.I wonder if Civil Beat could monetize a couple of hundred people better than HuffPo can monetize 10,000 comments.

  4. Roger Plothow
    Roger Plothow 7 years ago .Reply


    What a happy circumstance, at least for me: We agree again. You might find this blog post of interest:

  5. Derek
    Derek 7 years ago .Reply

    I don’t have a dog in this hunt, but I honestly would not spend a lot of time modeling myself on the Huffington Post. The comments there are execrable and the base content is pretty much just gossip and opinion.

    HP has a lot to be proud of in terms of building a successful content site, but being a news provider is not one of them. They are closer to Slashdot and Daily Kos than the NY Times, or even the Boulder Camera.

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