The subject is civil unions for gay couples. So you can expect the tone of the reader discussion to be highly charged, and even shocking. Try this inflammatory reader comment on for size:
Everyone's so damn reasonable on this site.
Yep, that's pretty shocking. A high-friction, high-emotion issue like civil unions—and the reader discussion is, indeed, "reasonable."
What's going on here?
Welcome to Honolulu Civil Beat, the new site covering Hawaii from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and veteran editor John Temple. It's got a cockamamie paywall, er, membership plan—you can't read much on the site without ponying up $19.99 a month (good luck with that business model)—but the reader comments are outside the paywall, and true to the site's name, they're very "civil" indeed.
How come? Well, at a time when a chorus of news business voices is rising against the idea of anonymous comments on news sites (and rightly so), Civil Beat's subscription model is providing a foolproof antidote to anonymity: you can't comment without subscribing, and thus registering with the site's operators. Real names—or at least initials—are required, and enforced by membership registration. That certainly cleans up the level of discourse.
But there's somethine else going on at Civil Beat that I think helps keep the level of discussion intelligent and friendly: the site's staff is actively participating in the conversations. You don't see that often at news sites, even on reporter blogs—too often, the comments are just a reaction to the story, and the author watches from a safe remove rather than mixing it up with readers. The results can be ugly.
In contrast, Civil Beat refers to its reporters as "reporter-hosts," and that's the magic: they're acting as emcees and participants in the conversation. This isn't just comments moderation—it's active participation. Not being a nanny, but being a member of the community. That instantly changes the tone of the conversation.
Dive into some of the site's comments areas to see what I mean: The civil unions discussion is here (along with some general talk about other topics—the site still has some work to do on focusing discussions around a topic). Here's one on homelessness, another hot-button topic on most sites. Note that the reporter-host—and even Omidyar and Temple themselves—are chiming in every few comments, reinforcing good behavior and gently guiding the conversation toward a level of constructive dialogue basically unheard of in most news-site comments areas.
News sites have found all sorts of ways to screw up comments over the years, usually by being incredibly naive about what it takes to run them properly. One of the biggest common sins is defaulting, all too often, to unregistered anonymity, which is why a lot of people now think that news sites need to go to much stronger levels of registration for reader participation. Why not? What have you got to lose? It can be as simple as simply asking commenters to register with their real names (yes, many will), or at least to use a consistent identity that can be confirmed behind the scenes—and policed if need be. Howard Owen has some smart things to say about this:
Real names may not prevent people from spewing misinformation and defamatory bile, but at least if readers trust that the person making such assertions is using a real name, they can judge it accordingly, or fact check the source themselves….I strongly believe that news organizations that allow anonymous comments are committing a grievous ethical blunder. There is no justification or excuse for it. They are tarnishing their brand and credibility at a time they can least afford to devalue either.
For sure, Civil Beat's membership model, which effectively ends anonymity (you need a credit card to register), helps a lot. And it's early yet—maybe things will break down and the trolls will arrive as more people join the discussions (and as reporter-hosts get busier and less able to participate. I hope not).
But this is a huge step in the right direction, and points toward a way toward fixing the cesspools that most news site comments areas have become. Editor Temple has a lot of other great ideas for the site, and it will be fascinating to watch it innovate and evolve.
Civil Beat's slogan, as elucidated by founder Omidyar, is a very Hawaiian "Be cool. Be you. Be civil." It seems to be working. Mahalo.
PS: Scott Rosenberg has a little cautionary tale of what happens when news organizations don't participate in—or even read—their story comments.