OK. It's still not the Algonquin Round Table, but the conversations are getting better in the comment streams on sltrib.com.
It was last July that I asked readers what they thought about the reader comments posted below stories on sltrib.com. The answers were varied, including a few calls to do away with them altogether. But most wanted us to keep the system more or less the way it was, but with more policing.
So in October we launched a new, more aggressive effort to chase away the problem children, that small percentage of commenters who get their thrills by testing everyone else's tolerance.
Now I'm happy to report that the effort is working. At this point we have more people commenting and more people reading comments. But despite the increased volume, we're actually having to remove fewer comments and ban fewer commenters. (See accompanying graphics.) For that, the whole commenting community can take a bow.
"The overall analytics show that the rogues have mostly been chased away," said Kim McDaniel, Web/breaking news director. "Those who haven't did tone things down once they saw their compatriots disappearing from the site. We've gained new commenters at a faster rate than before these changes, which I think we can likely attribute to a more welcoming environment."
It's also a victory for "persistent identity" commenting communities like ours. We allow commenters to choose anonymous screen names, but then we make them persist with those names. We have a few ways to verify that commenters do not have more than one name, and we ban them if they do.
That system combines the freedom of anonymity with the responsibility of reputation. The commenting world may only know your pseudonym, but they will remember you. That has proven a great system for those who want to join the conversation without endangering their jobs or other relationships. We further built on that by launching the "badging" system that identifies the longtime and more respected commenters.
Of course, there are still times when the conversations can head off the rails, and our monitors swing into action. And, yes, the hot-button areas are what you would expect:
"Frankly, the topics you shouldn't talk about at Thanksgiving are the topics that are problematic online: Religion, politics and immigration," said Scott Sherman, new media content editor, who along with McDaniel does most of the comments policing.
Of course, journalists love controversy. It is the visible sign of a society working through its issues. We at The Salt Lake Tribune have known that as a newspaper, and we know it now as an interactive website.
And we're not done evolving. We will continue to review our policies and keep an eye out for what is working elsewhere. We invite you to join us for an online chat about comments Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. at sltrib.com.
To be sure, reader comments are still an acquired taste, and there are a great many readers who will never acquire it. That's OK. We've given everyone a button ("Click here to hide comments") that will remove them on every story. Believe me, we're fine if you want us to have the last word.
Otherwise, we'll see you in the comment stream. The water's fine.
Tim Fitzpatrick is deputy editor of The Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Online chat on comments
O Got comments on comments? Join us for a chat session Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. Just go to sltrib.com