Editor Column: Tribune comments platform gets a refinement

By Tim Fitzpatrick

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: March 16, 2013 06:15PM
Updated: March 17, 2013 09:39AM
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Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City - Tim Fitzpatrick - Deputy Editor.
We are changing The Salt Lake Tribune's online comments format again to make it a little more user-friendly for commenters and comment readers. You'll see these changes on Monday, March 18.

Changes to comments always produce groans from our faithful online community, and we really don't do it to bother them. In this case, the outfit that provides our comments platform, Disqus, has changed its format, and we have to change with it. But the change will bring some new tools to help the conversations along.

Love them or hate them, reader comments endure. Last year more than 42,000 separate commenters posted more than 1 million comments on Tribune stories. That is an unmatched level of reader interactivity in Utah news media.

So what will change?

First off, we have a new voting system that allows readers to vote a comment up or down, and those votes will determine what comments are displayed under the story. Up to five comments will display at the bottom of stories, and they will be the "top" comments based on reader voting. It's like the old thumbs up/thumbs down system, but without the thumbs. And the rest of the comments still can be found by clicking on the "Read all comments" link.

The new voting features give commenters and comment readers more power to self-moderate.

"With voting, the new Disqus encourages richer discussions to form by letting the community surface the best comments," states the Disqus company blog. "By pairing this with a smarter scoring system, Disqus will help maintain quality discussions - but without silencing simply less popular opinions."

To be clear, The Tribune's comment arena is still monitored by Tribune people. These Disqus tools help improve the conversation, but it's still our own people who are making the calls when readers report comments that they feel are breaking our rules on civility and relevance.

The new system will also have "Community" and "My Disqus" tabs to help people track conversations and interact with other commenters.

And, sorry, veterans, the badge system we had for commenters goes away in the new platform.

As always, our comments system will continue to use an approach called "persistent identity." That is, we allow commenters to sign up with a pseudonym rather than requiring real names, but then we make the commenters stay with their pseudonyms for all comments.

We moderate the comments on site and respond to complaints, but we do not prescreen the comments before they go up. With more than 2,700 comments posted every day, we don't want to slow the conversations down.

In terms of keeping conversations both free-flowing and respectful, persistent identity works. The Disqus folks even have data that indicate comments made by pseudonymous posters are rated higher than from those who use their real Facebook identities.

Still not convinced there is a useful blade of grass in the online comments pasture? That's OK. Just read The Tribune's award-winning journalism, and you can start your own stimulating conversations anywhere.

Tim Fitzpatrick is Deputy Editor. He can be reached at fitz@sltrib.com.