published Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Gerber: Website comment rules stir debate

The decision to change the Times Free Press' online comment policy fired up a flurry of online comments.

Readers left about 200 comments on the newspaper's website and on the Times Free Press' Facebook page. More called or emailed me their opinions.

Many are disappointed and even angry that we chose to close comments on news stories.

"Your decision is a mistake. Most of the people who make reasonable comments don't read the abusive ones," a reader posted on the newspaper's website.

Another called the comments section "good entertainment," and many said they felt like the decision to close comments limits their voice.

"Sad to see free speech end," one commenter posted.

Others say we're making the right decision. Online comments are often "offensive, inflammatory, racist, bigoted, ignorant," one reader wrote, while another decried "some horrendously racist and vile statements" posted on some stories.

Still others said that, while some comments are offensive, they'd rather have them than not.

"The comments are sometimes way off topic and sometimes personal attacks," one online commenter stated. "Some of them are sarcastic. Some are wrong. Some are just plain silly. There are some I rarely agree with but NONE should be removed altogether."

I am pleased to see that so many people are passionate about the newspaper's website and our comment policy. Thank you all for sharing your views, both negative and positive. We truly struggled over how to manage online comments as they increasingly grew divisive, cruel and vitriolic.

Newspapers across the country have debated the same issue. Some have found inventive ways to allow comments while keeping them civil.

The New York Times in November started a program for "trusted" commenters, a status offered by invitation only. Trusted commenters enjoy the privilege of commenting on articles without having their comments moderated in advance, according to the newspaper's website.

To be invited, commenters must have a "lengthy history of comments that are thoughtful, discuss the issues politely and address the topics covered in the article," according to the Times.

Trusted commenters are required to connect their Times commenting profiles and their Facebook accounts.

The Wall Street Journal requires its commenters to use their actual first and last names.

USA Today requires readers to log on through Facebook to post a comment, a move to "provide a welcoming environment that encourages high-quality and relevant contributions," according to the newspaper's website.

The Huffington Post, a pioneer in online delivery of news and commentary, has adopted a comments policy that features a team of staff and community moderators who keep an eye on the comments 24/7.

Commenters are excluded from posting comments that "consistently or intentionally make this community a less civil and enjoyable place to be," according to the Huffington Post's website. Commenters who consistently flag comments that are removed by the moderators may be given the privilege of hiding or removing comments entirely. The idea is for the online community to police itself.

Some Times Free Press readers asked why, rather than allow readers to comment anonymously, we don't just require them to use their names.

Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. There's no way for us to know whether someone is posting under their name or a name they made up. For that matter, they could be commenting under someone else's name.

For years, the most reproduced New Yorker cartoon featured two dogs, one at a computer and another on the floor. The dog at the computer screen is telling the other dog, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

As discussion about anonymous online comments continued last week, some readers suggested the change in our policy will hurt the newspaper during an era when media companies are facing challenges. One email referenced the "struggling" newspaper industry, and an online comment referenced the newspaper's "pathetic subscription rate."

I must set the record straight on those comments. The Times Free Press, unlike many newspapers, is growing.

From 2008 to 2011, the newspaper's total daily circulation grew 8.1 percent, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. And page views on our website have more than doubled since January 2010 and now routinely top 6 million a month.

Hardly pathetic.

Naturally, we hope those numbers continue to push upwards and, to that end, I hope you continue to go online to comment on columns, editorials, editorial cartoons and other works of opinion. You can also give feedback on news stories on the Times Free Press Facebook page.

And I hope you'll let us know if you think a story needs more reporting or is somehow off balance. Just because we no longer allow comments to online news stories does not mean we don't want to hear from readers.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Times Free Press. Reach her at

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.

Debate? No, it just encouraged a bunch of bickering.

January 8, 2012 at 12:48 p.m.
BOS_to_CHA said...

"Yo dawg, I heard you like comments on your stories so I left a comment in your story that talked about comments on a story that was about commenting on stories." -Xzibit

January 8, 2012 at 12:59 p.m.
chefdavid said...

I miss having the ability to post on stories. It also gives locals a chance to talk about local stories. That is one thing I don't like about the ajc. At least they have blog sections like Galloway where one can comment. Comments can also give reporters inspiration to look at things in a different angle or ideas for new stories. I'll still keep my subscription but am disappointed.

January 8, 2012 at 2:27 p.m.
ceeweed said...

No comment!

January 8, 2012 at 9:59 p.m.
ex_army65 said...

Instead of comparing your paper with the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, and USA Today, maybe you should scale down a little bit and compare it with how newspapers of a comparable size run their comment boards. I know folks like to dream high, but come on now...its not like you're getting the comment traffic that the papers you're comparing yourself to are. So it wouldnt take much to hire or delegate someone to moderate the comments on the stories and warn the offenders of inappropriate behavior and then ban them if it doesnt stop.

I know that the St. Louis Post Dispatch isnt in the same class as the New York Times, USA Today, The Huffington Post, and the Chattanooga Times Free Press, but that process works for them and still gives me the opportunity to comment on things that happen in my old home town.

January 9, 2012 at 10:25 a.m.
onetinsoldier said...

I think a visit from anonymous is warranted.

January 9, 2012 at 10:35 a.m.
lightkeeper said...

People all over the country tap into Chattanooga times free press website, I have friends as far away as Seattle Wa. commenting on this area being one of the most diversive, bigoted and hateful area they have ever encountered. So if thats one of the reasons the comment section has been changed....too late, the cats out the bag!

January 9, 2012 at 10:38 a.m.
hambone said...

Some of those posting comments on TFP are so nasty they would post comments on people's Obituaries if TFP would let them!!

January 10, 2012 at 6:24 a.m.
328Kwebsite said...

By requiring Facebook accounts for your posters, you are deliberately excluding the poor. Facebook's rubric for verifying an individual relies on methods which require a credit card.

If a person has not used a credit card to get a phone number, open certain types of online accounts, or purchased a cell phone plan on credit, they're probably going to be excluded from Facebook's normal verification measures.

By using techniques like checking a phone number, sending emails to certain businesses that host email accounts, or pinging a cell phone on a company's plan, social media businesses like Facebook indirectly establish and verify credit and financial status without asking a single banking question.

Facebook's business model hinges on the concept that a person's ideas, geographic location, social influence and credit are all unified in their database.

Google follows a similar methodology with its new "Google+" accounts.

The less a computer company's methods bring direct access to profit for outside companies, the more their public image will be painted as a "loser" business model. Public image for social media companies is about sharing market information from databases voluntarily updated by the users.

By requiring a Facebook account, your business is choosing to exclude the poor. Poor people deserve a voice in the press. Many of your readers do not have a financial status which supports disposable consumer income. Those readers are why you should continue to host comments yourself. Your business model requires verifiable readership. That is the main financial function comments serve you here.

Look at your Facebook page. Count how many of those profile pictures show a user whose skin color is other than white. I know from reviewing your page that at any given time you will have fewer than 5% of people of color identifying their faces on Facebook comments to the Times Free Press.

Do you think that the poorest of the poor in our city have a Facebook account? Do you think that those who struggle with the worst violence in our city should be excluded from these discussions about crime and society?

If you want to toadie up to Mayor Coppinger's platform of only wanting "positive" news, then all you have to do is exclude people who aren't rich enough to be mostly couched all the time. That's the effect of requiring a Facebook account.

It may serve your marketing model well, but it only speaks to your desire to gain money instead of report the observable truth.

Y'all made a poor decision to knuckle under in order to placate the old and the rich who control the information you need to do your jobs. They are manipulating you by cutting off or threatening to cut off access to information, and you are going along with their plan.

Admitting anything else is just fiction.

January 11, 2012 at 10:51 a.m.

JonRoss, I would say that bringing up Obama and lefties in this discussion doesn't count as debate, but is just pointless bickering. It does exemplify the character of the prior discussion.

A debate would at least have some exchange of ideas.

328k, Or just consider how sketchy both of those companies are with their profit stream based of people's identity.


January 11, 2012 at 9:05 p.m.
John_Proctor said...

Hambone @6:24 accurately stated: Some of those posting comments on TFP are so nasty they would post comments on people's Obituaries if TFP would let them!!

ROTFLMAO as your comment is hilarious and sadly true.

January 12, 2012 at 12:24 a.m.
Rtazmann said...


January 13, 2012 at 12:48 a.m.
11states said...

tfp sucks.

January 16, 2012 at 12:52 a.m.
Rtazmann said...


March 1, 2012 at 5:47 p.m.
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