A new approach to online comments at Alaska Dispatch News

Starting Wednesday, we're changing the way readers make story comments on adn.com.

We are moving away from Facebook-based commenting on our site. We're trying a new platform, Civil Comments. It's a fresh approach to story commenting, using reviews by other commenters to help moderate submissions. The goal: Interesting and civil debate and conversation, no spam and, we hope, a better experience for all readers.

I've heard a lot about our comments the past few months. A couple of weeks ago, we surveyed readers about our site and content. A consistent theme in the nearly 900 responses: Do something about the comments.

We're keeping our comments. At their best, they add information and other points of view, and they can inform our own reporting. We value that and want to keep it. But with limited staff time to monitor the hundreds of comments posted to our site each day, something had to give. While the overall tone of our comments has improved in recent months (and thanks again to all those who have kept their own comments on track and flagged those that aren't), we still struggle with personal attacks, spam and worse.

We're not looking to stifle or skew debate. We do want to improve the quality of the comment space, and we think Civil Comments can help us do that.

Civil is a Portland startup that uses technology and peer review to keep things on track. We're the third, and biggest, site to adopt it so far, following Willamette Week in Portland and the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon. I've talked with editors at both sites in recent months, and both report a change for the better. (Read more about Civil Comments in recent stories at Wired and Nieman Lab.)

Here's how it works: First, set up an account. You can create one in the comment space below our stories. You can set up a Civil Comments account with an email address or your existing Facebook or Twitter logins, but you do not need Facebook to comment, which should come as good news for the many readers I've heard from who for various reasons don't use Facebook.


When you post a new comment, you'll be asked to quickly rate two unrelated comments for both quality and civility -- and then to rate your own comment. Once your comment is submitted, it will be reviewed by other commenters. Ratings also are cross-checked by Civil's algorithms against other users' responses. Users collectively help determine the tone of the comments and what's acceptable. Readers can also flag inappropriate material for us to review. It's a completely new approach.

Everyone's comments are peer-reviewed to start. Commenters with a history of civil comments can earn trusted status. After that, the peer reviews become optional.

"So many news sites are turning off their comments because they can't afford to monitor and moderate them 24/7," Aja Bogdanoff, one of the Civil co-founders, said in an email. "That's a real loss, both for the sites and for their audiences. Public discussion is crucial to online spaces; we don't want to see it disappear.

"We're big supporters of free speech and honest debate; no one wants to see comments sanitized. The thing is, comment sections that become toxic have a real silencing effect on potential commenters. When participants are guaranteed a basic level of civility and respect, we see a lot more people willing to join in and debate in the comments."

More details about how the system works are in Civil's user guide.

As we transition, we'll be keeping Facebook-based comments on older articles and will be using Civil Comments on new content, starting with articles published Wednesday morning. Our regular Facebook feed itself isn't affected by any of this.

Give it a try and let us know what you think. As always, thanks for reading.

David Hulen is editor of Alaska Dispatch News. Email him: dhulen@alaskadispatch.com

David Hulen

David Hulen is editor of the ADN, He's been a reporter and editor at ADN for 36 years. As a reporter, he traveled extensively in Alaska. He was a writer on the "People In Peril" series and covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He was co-editor of the "Lawless" series. Reach him at dhulen@adn.com.