May 20 2009
07:59 am

I was invited to participate in a roundtable/brainstorming session last night regarding reader comments on local media websites. The meeting was sponsored by the Associated Press Managing Editors association and hosted by the Knoxville News Sentinel.

The discussions were videotaped and will be published on the News Sentinel's website as a resource for other journalists and the public. Knoxville's meeting is part of a nationwide APME project that will involve six roundtable discussions on topics related to online journalism credibility.


There was lively discussion among a diverse panel representing citizens, public officials, bloggers, journalists, and media executives. KNS Editor Jack McElroy stressed that media representatives were there to listen to concerns and they hoped to come away with insights that will help guide their policy on community participation. He said they would provide a follow up report on actions taken. WBIR News Director Bill Shory also participated.

The discussion focused on the problem of mean-spirited and abusive comments that seem to inevitably occur with certain types of stories. A number of scenarios were presented, prompting discussion of the problems and some good ideas for dealing with them.

Another topic was the perception that media websites promote controversial stories and "trashy" journalism to drive up page views that generate more revenue.

E.W. Scripps VP of Interactive Rusty Coats said that in all the years he has been in the business no advertiser has ever come to him and asked for a paper to publish more trash. He said advertisers do not want to be associated with it.

News Sentinel Publisher Bruce Hartmann said the purpose of online comments is to promote dialogue and create a community forum. He said that 20% to 30% of the News Sentinel's audience is online and it generates about 7% of revenues. He noted that 50,000 comments are not significant in terms of revenue as compared to the site's 1.5 million to 2 million page views per month.

Jack McElroy is more concerned with the journalism aspects. He says the media's role has shifted and they are no longer gatekeepers. It is now a two-way world and an interactive process, and that to remain relevant and important they must stay at the center of the dialogue. We discussed this a little more during a break, and Mr. McElroy said that, as a journalist, he always comes down on the side of free speech and their goal is to be the online "town square."

I appreciate the opportunity to take part in the informative discussion and thank the News Sentinel and Jack McElroy for inviting me to participate. I hope local media took away some good ideas and I'm looking forward to their follow up action report.

Other participants were:

• Becky Hancock, citizen online participant
• Bob Benz, Radiant Markets (moderator)
• Brittany Fulmer (coach Phil Fulmer's daughter)
• Chuck Jensen, citizen online participant
• Deena Christian, mother of murder victim Channon Christian
• Elaine Kramer, APME (sponsor)
• Indya Kincannon, Knox Co. School Board
• Jack Lail, News Sentinel Director of Innovation
• Jigsha Desai, News Sentinel Online Editor
• LeRoy Thompson, BDT Development & Management
• Dr. Loida Velazquez, Educator and Latino community activist
• Mike Arms, Chief of Staff, Knox Co. Mayor's Office
• Tom Chester, News Sentinel Director of News Operations
• Tom McAdams, Attorney
• William Rukeyser, noted financial journalist and community leader

News Sentinel online producers Lauren Spuhler and Erin Chapin handled videography, and E.W. Scripps Interactive Newspaper content manager Patrick Beeson was taking notes.


Video, Part 1
Video, Part 2

UPDATE: A roundup

WhitesCreek's picture

THE William Rukeyser?

THE William Rukeyser? Wow!

As for comments and their relationship to traffic, I think 50,000 comments would have a fair bit to do with a couple of million page views per month. At RoaneViews it looks like comments drive traffic as people who don't comment still want to keep up with discussions.

The important number is discreet viewers, though, and I think allowing nasty comments to drive discussions seems to drive folks away, not increase traffic.

R. Neal's picture

Yes, on all those points.

Yes, on all those points.

ETA: The challenge is to "manage" (for lack of a better word) the conversation so that it adds value instead of subtracts. And for the record, you do an excellent job of that at RoaneViews. In fact, you should have been there last night.

tennesseevaluesauthority's picture

Great report

I'm glad to hear they are addressing this and equally glad to see they invited you to participate.

D.A.B.'s picture

Thanks, Randy

Good report, and I'm glad the KNS and APME are addressing this topic.

Dwight Van de Vate's picture

An honest discussion on this is desperately needed.

I wasn't a party to this discussion, so a genuinely direct, honest conversation about on line posting may have taken place last night. I hope so.

Particularly as it pertains to the Sentinel, the real dichotomy here is the struggle between content quality and traffic. The harsh reality is that the more outrageous, salacious and offensive a discussion becomes, the more people seem to be drawn to it. We all react in abject horror at the racism, misogyny and vitriol that people spew, but we read it nonetheless. When we do so, we represent numbers that are vitally important to a sales force struggling to survive, employed by a company trying to find a sustainable business model.

No easy answers here, no quick fixes.

Dwight Van de Vate
Chief Administrative Officer
Knox County Mayor's Office

R. Neal's picture

No easy answers here, no

No easy answers here, no quick fixes.

Yes, I don't think there were any magic bullets to come out of the discussion, but a few good ideas. There's at least an acknowledgment that they are in uncharted territory and need to address it. With shrinking staff and newsroom it will be tough. It's on their radar because it appears to be taking up a lot of management's time for very little return and in fact there seem to be concerns that it is hurting their brand.

McElroy seems sincere in his desire to promote civil online debate with enough leeway for all points of view, including some that many find objectionable, and the challenge is to figure out where to draw the line.

On the other hand, it should be noted that some stories generate 90% constructive dialogue that adds value. Hopefully they can focus on how/why that works, and maybe consider just not opening up the known problem areas for discussion.

Tom McAdams had a good question. If, for purposes of discussion, 5% of Knoxville is racist does that mean the KNS should allow 5% of the content in comments to be racist remarks so that it accurately reflects community attitudes? I think most agree that it does not, but most also agree there is some value in putting some ignorance in the light of day.

redmondkr's picture

Notice that the KNS site

Notice that the KNS site requires registration and sign-in to comment. I would like to see sign-in required in order to view the comments.

Visit us at:

The Home

R. Neal's picture

Notice that the KNS site

Notice that the KNS site requires registration and sign-in to comment. I would like to see sign-in required in order to view the comments.

One suggestion by Mr. Rukeyser was to put comments on a separate tab so viewers have the option of wading in or not. Another suggestion was to provide an "opt out" button so they are not shown at all. Indya Kincannon noted that she wants her kids to read the paper and stay informed but she doesn't want them exposed to some of that stuff you see in comments.

Lisa Starbuck's picture

Accountability and Civility

As one of the moderators and co-founders of School Matters, I know that this is a difficult issue, but I believe that there are ways to deal with comments that get out of hand without totally shutting down conversations. It's up to the site operators to make and enforce civility rules.

Our group made a conscious decision to encourage productive dialogue by making and enforcing some ground rules that we really stick to. We prohibit personal attacks or posts that are defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. It requires active moderation to enforce the policies, but we have a lot less problems than one would guess after people figure out that we mean business.

We also encourage (although we don't require) people to use their real names. I have found that people who use their real names online are much less likely to engage in this type of behavior. We do allow anonymous speech, but posters are still required to follow site rules.

The conversations at School Matters, while admittedly limited to education issues only, still covers controversial topics (like the Bill Phillips incident) but with more civility than at other sites. It's more work, but worth it, in my opinion, and I think the site is far better off for it. And we still have pretty good numbers in terms of readership, without all the inflammatory and garbage posts that turn off people who are interested in engaging in civil conversations.

R. Neal's picture

Setting and aggressively

Setting and aggressively enforcing rules are the basics. Apparently, the problem with sites like the KNS is the volume and the fact that staff is already stretched too thin.

Some other ideas were to encourage responsible "silent majority" readers to be more active in using the 'suggest removal' feature, and recruiting 'citizen moderators' to help.

Someone noted (I think maybe it was Bill Shory from WBIR) that he was reviewing some stuff and was surprised that it hadn't been flagged. I remarked that this has to make you wonder what kind of community you are building, i.e. who you are attracting.

SnM's picture

sadly, it may be that the

sadly, it may be that the community being built online is reflective of the community at large, simply with the freedom anonymity encourages to reveal what they would normally only show only their confidants. i hope that is overly pessimistic.

bill young's picture


Myself I've never been into a fuck you post.

Sometimes I read the new media & that's my first reaction.

Then I take breath & hopefully create a post
that gets my point across without being vitriolic.

But the new media allows individuals to have
instant reaction to the subject at hand.

That's the beauty & the beast of the new media.

How does one promote free expression on topics that by
nature are hotly debated & ones views are held as inviolable?

One example is the debate with respect to the recently held
TEA parties.

Read the thread on Knoxviews & one can see what I mean.

The new media is fueled by such's what
makes it cutting edge.

But let's don't bleed to death cutting each other
up on the razor sharp edge of uncivil discourse.

A. Nonny Mouse's picture

The thought of Randy Neal

The thought of Randy Neal weighing in on this topic is quite ironic, considering that his method of dealing with opposing opinion is to just shut it down - by deleting comments, blocking people and redirecting web traffic, among other tricks he pulls. Folks, R. Neal is a wuss. If the conversation is not going his way, he shuts it down. "Speech is free, as long as you agree" - right, Randy? Especially if you can't back up what you say with those inconvenient fact thingies. What a joke you are!

WhitesCreek's picture

As this post illustrates,

Randy...You need to add another button: "Flag as Stoopid"

I've seen similar comments at my site and several other progressive sites accusing us of the exact tactic used at winger sites to reinforce their own unjustifyable point of view. Reality is that we accept and frankly cherish thoughtful and reasoned opinions, regardless of whether they match our own or not. We don't care for crude scribbles on the bathroom wall and have to paint over them when they don't contribute.

R. Neal's picture

I looked at the actual, you

Exactly. I looked at the actual, you know, data and stuff, and only about 1% of comments since the beginning of this site have been unpublished, and a large percentage of those are spam.

Leland Wykoff's picture

MarketPlace of Ideas--At KNS Site?

Odd that the News-Sentinel would sponsor such a forum. To be cutting edge they would have conducted the town-hall online.

But online it is hard to control and direct the discussion. Gosh, people might say things the pair of Jacks do not care for. Not going to have that!

The News-Sentinel cares little for intelligent discussion on this issue. If they did the Jacks would address multiple questions about removing, hiding, and otherwise restricting access to certain posts. This discussion is available right on the editors blog--but only silence from Jack.


Here is part of the discussion:

Seems Mr. Lail, Editor at KnoxNews, suffers from a double standard concerning postings.

When he moderates a discussion board affiliated with the Society of Professional Journalists, geared toward Investigative Reporters and Editors, his policy is summed up quite nicely:

"...Lail, the director of the online media division of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, prefers a "loose hand." He intervenes only "when they get after each other personally.""

"I really wish there was some intelligence filter," Lail says. "People are like lemmings. Some of them can't help but follow some nut off some path."

To read more on this topic visit The Columbia Journalism Review at (link...). This is where the above quotes come from.

KnoxNews reviews and simply "disappears" some on-topic posts. These appear to be disappeared for political bias. Such behavior is not tolerated on the professional journalist blogs Mr. Lail volunteers to moderate.

The first line of the CJR story is quite instructive: "Internet discussion lists are supposed to serve as sanctuaries, virtual communities where people with similar interests can talk shop. That's true for journalists, who have a wide range of places to connect with each other online."

For additional questions about comments check out Jack's Blog at:


Note how the Jacks do not respond to tough, well researched, documented questions. Instead they hold tightly-controlled town-hall meetings.

Jack Lail's picture

RE: MarketPlace of Ideas--At KNS Site?

Most of the criticism I've received revolves around the "loose hand" issue.

We've tried to encourage robust conversation, but much of it often drifts into personal attacks, bigotry, unsubstantiated and often libelous rumors, and the just inane. We're also struggling with the sheer volume comments to manage.

We are trying to limit the stuff, that as William Rukeyser said, "subtracts from the sum of human knowledge."

I do have an agenda, albeit not a politically charged one. I want users our Web sites to comment within the bounds of these guidelines.

"Be nice - If you want your comment gems to survive, you won't defame, threaten or be abusive to other readers or the subjects of our stories. Victims have feelings too. Out of concern for them, we may not allow comments on certain stories.

"Keep it clean - This is a public forum, open to civil adults and children who do not appreciate your vulgarities or obscenities.

"Be responsible - Comments are the sole responsibility of those who post them. You'll have no one else to blame if you don't preview your comment carefully and think it through before clicking "submit."

"You are deputized - Police these comment threads. If you see a comment that violates the rules, click "Suggest removal" to flag that comment for further review by our staff.

"There are consequences - Rules violators may be banned from commenting.

"Ask questions, share your knowledge, and help us get the story right - If you are aware of a factual error in a story, want to share facts or background information you know about the story, or think there are issues we should follow up on, e-mail our local news desk."

I might be overestimating humanity, but I don't think that's a very high bar.

If you can't do that, hopefully, we'll notice and remove your comment. If you consistently can't meet that standard, we'll ban your user login from commenting.

Are we hiding comments? If "removing them from view" is hiding, then we do. That is what we do with comments that can't reach the above standard.

I'm not sure what my quotes in your post illustrate other than to accurately reflect my views on online comments. In addition to being quoted here and there, I've written a bit about comments if you care to read what I've written: (link...)

Through the help of our excellent Roundtable participants, we'll find some more intelligent ways to keep the community conversation in our comments out of the ditches.

We'll be launching a broader online conversation about comments soon; watch for it. There's been some great discussion here as well that we're obviously paying attention too.

Comment management is an evolving process.

Leland Wykoff's picture

Gatekeepers--Not Market Place of Ideas

Essentially, the online edition(s) of the Knoxville News Sentinel,, selectively removes reader posts which are within published guidelines for comments.

These removals seem to be biased toward large commercial advertising accounts and pet projects of the newspaper publisher and/or editor.

An example of pet community projects being given special attention by the editor would involve United Way of Greater Knoxville. The KNS Editor, Mr. Bruce Hartman, was campaign chair of the United Way 2007 drive. The 2008 campaign has had difficulty reaching goal, in fact, for the first time in KUW's history the campaign had to be extended into the New Year. That late campaign was still underway and raising funds.

The newspaper, and web site, has been running numerous puff pieces designed to build support for the KUW campaign. These stories have been granted prime real-estate on both the print and web editions--being placed as front page, above the fold, and home page web stories.

When reader comments have been attached to these promotional stories raising concerns about the financial management of United Way or suggesting KUW may not be worthy of continued support, those reader comments have been removed (or the story was buried on the web site and another--identical--puff piece was placed on a fresh page to replace the previous story and the reader comment thread was not attached to this "updated" story.)

At no point in this reporting process does the KNS or KnoxNews indicate the conflict of interest due to the past history of the Editor being campaign chair, nor is it mentioned that Amy Nolan, a writer for the KNS integrated property Greater Knoxville Business Journal, is currently on the Board of Directors of KUW.

Specifically, I posted an extremely brief comment which referenced and provided a link to a blue ribbon panel finding in the recent Charlotte United Way CEO pay scandal. This comment was "hidden" by staff by replacing the story with another fresh puff article which did not include my comment/link. As my initial comment was made late in the evening (after 10 pm), the effect of this move was to deny much readership to my critical comment.

I simply re posted a look-a-like comment to the new story early the next morning. This comment/link was promptly removed. As were other critical reader comments. Thus affirmed the intent to remove or hide critical comments which were well within the published standards for posting.

Another reader and commenter protested the removal of comments and later questions were poised to the KNS editor's blog requesting clarification. The editor has yet to respond to such questions.

The link I provided to the Charlotte UW debacle was quite on target. That report has been mandated as required reading for all United Way affiliates nationwide by the United Way of America umbrella governing body. In addition, it appears KUW expends a great deal of resources on travel, training, conferences, all expenditures which in a tight budget year can be reduced or eliminated. Such reduction would make it unnecessary to continue, time and time again, to extend the campaign deadline.

Such issues are not explored and reported by KNS/ They simply churn out puff/promotional pieces all the while failing to disclose conflicts of interest.

As a quick reference I provide links to the KnoxNews items below:



Here is a copy of my post removed by on the new morning edition United Way story:

Posted by lelandwykoff on December 19, 2008 at 8:42 a.m. Woops! Posted this comment last night and it seems to have been disappeared. Lets just try again!
Check this out:
United Way limps from one scandal to the next.

R. Neal's picture

Bumped for update: •

Bumped for update:

Video, Part 1
Video, Part 2

Somebody's picture

"Jack McElroy is more

"Jack McElroy is more concerned with the journalism aspects. He says the media's role has shifted and they are no longer gatekeepers. It is now a two-way world and an interactive process, and that to remain relevant and important they must stay at the center of the dialogue."

Jack McElroy is missing the boat. By breathlessly chasing technological trends in a foolish effort to "remain relevant," he is sacrificing the actual relevance of his organization. Instead of trying desperately to be cool by remaking the Sentinel into a discussion forum, he should be committing more resources to actual journalism. With all due respect to Mr. Neal here, anybody can set up an online forum, and it doesn't cost that much to do it. And that's great; people can use that to freely express their opinions, to and fro, and that undoubtedly at least has the potential, with the obvious down-sides, to enhance free speech in an open society. But you know, it's still all just a bunch of people expressing their opinions, with significantly varying levels of knowledge to back them up.

If McElroy wants to remain relevant, he should keep 100% of his focus on hiring and keeping good reporters, and rewarding them for carefully researching and reporting the news. Instead of trying so hard to follow the crowd, McElroy should realize that the big weakness of blogs and discussion forums is the low standards of information when it comes to actual facts. Face it, without direct links to reliable sources of information, most stuff you read in forums online is no better than the stuff you hear from some guy sitting next to you at the bus stop.

Forget the stupid comments on all the articles. The Sentinel should do away with them. Instead, the online version of the Sentinel could give reporters the opportunity to cover things in depth, without the column-inch limitations of the print edition. Many print articles could finish by saying, "for more details and in-depth coverage, go to," where a brief article can be supplemented by all the news that wouldn't fit in print. If McElroy's focus was actually on reporting the news, then every nickel-and-dime blog and forum would be constantly linking to his journalists' work and driving traffic to his website, because that would be the one place in town where people could expect to find solid, factual, timely reporting. Instead, his reporters get a few paragraphs that roughly equate with the print version of an article, and a bunch of yokels get to overwhelm that with thousands of words of mostly irrelevant blather.

McElroy has it exactly backwards, and until he realizes it and uses the true potential of his website, he'll just be chasing trends like a desperate teenager who never can quite stay relevant.

Mucusproteus's picture

Sentinel focus actually on reporting the news?

That might be a refreshing development. Might be happening by the time they get those Zambonis delivered to those ice rinks in Hell.

I comment over at the Sentinel all the time, always abjectly idiotically. Because I'm an illiterate hick and I truly don't know my butt from an orchid. I add nothing to any so-called conversation or mythical community dialog, and I notice that most other commenters there don't either. The only reason those things are there is that they drive page views because people like me, who always skip the actual articles we're commenting on, return to them like dogs to their own vomit to see if anyone has responded to us.

I agree. Save the bandwidth. Shut that crap down. Hire some good reporters and give 'em plenty of rope.

But I, for one, will not be holding my breath waiting for these things to happen.

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