NY Times doubles down on Internet comments

Weeks after NPR decided to give up on the notion that its online audience can intelligently discuss the day’s news via comments, the New York Times, which generally has a comment section worth reading, is trying another approach to elevate the scene.

It writes today that until now, it wasn’t “economically feasible” to moderate comments quickly. So the robots will now be in charge.

It provides a “test” to allow readers to see what it’s like to be a comment moderator.

What the New York Times community desk demands most of all is that some effort is made to justify your views. The desk must also be convinced that your intention is to inform and convince rather than to insult and enrage.

Like what? Here’s the answer code.

Rejected: A comment referring to “Repugnicans”:

Typically, insults against entire classes of people will be rejected by moderators. Times moderators often walk a fine line between encouraging open discussion and keeping the comments from devolving into the food fights you see on many other sites.

Rejected: A comment in which the writer says he/she will keep her thoughts to herself:

For example, comments that state only “Why is this news?” or “Who cares?” are rejected if they lack any further explanation. A commenter should tell readers why they believe what they do. Criticism of reporters or of The Times is encouraged, but should apply directly to the article in question. This way, we can prevent comment threads from becoming so repetitive that they discourage people from reading them.

Approved: A comment on same-sex marriage violating God’s intention:

We would have approved this comment. The commenter is making an argument against gay marriage that reflects common language used in the public sphere.

While this comment does contain content that may be insulting to a broad class of people, we must allow reasonable space for the expression of every point of view that is addressed by our reporting. This policy allowing for every point of view to be represented can lead to unexpected consequences. For example, The Times does not typically allow conspiracy theories in comments — unless the article is about conspiracy theories. Article comments are meant to further conversation and debate on the foremost disagreements about our society. Moderators should try to avoid making moral judgements on readers’ arguments.

Rejected: A comment that the Middle East should be sterilized.

We would have rejected this comment. It is effectively an insult to an entire class of people, and recommends presumably violent actions against them.

To be considered at all, this comment should explain why the commentor believes the people of these places should be sterilized. However, a comment making a detailed argument for something that might typically be considered racist may be published in some cases due to our internal mandate not to edit the conversations that take place on the site, but to protect them. This comment does not reach that standard. In many cases, the approval or rejection of a comment relies on the writer’s specificity. For example, a comment saying “Antarcticans are too violent when they protest, and it’s a sign of their leaders’ irresponsibility. These people have no real goals” would be rejected as an insult against a class. But if that comment began, “The Antarctic Liberation Front is …” It would be accepted.

Approved: A comment that women are insecure and fight biology via monogamy.

We would have approved. Whether we agree with a comment, we want to provide a space for interesting interactions to occur.

Put simply, the replies to this comment may prove to be enlightening for many readers. The comment does not criticize a specific woman, so it is not a personal attack. While it might be considered an insult against a class, alleging an “obsession” is not a particularly inflammatory insult. We don’t seek to police opinions, only to help as many people as possible express themselves on nytimes.com.

For the record, that’s the only one I got wrong. Or the only one the Times got wrong, depending on your view.

The Times calculated it would take me 71 hours to moderate its daily volume of comments, thus the need to go to a Google-based robot.

And, unlike NPR, the Times will be expanding the amount of its content subject to commenting, although it didn’t say how.

Ironically, people could not comment on today’s article.

  • guest

    My personal values: Don’t use labels, they all either mean I like or I don’t like.

    Speak in reasons for conclusions, not just conclusions.

    And I keep in mind, darn near exactly half the country for many years has been opposed to the other half……based more on each sides assumptions about the un-intended consequences than the hoped for consequences.

    Both sides sincerely and truly want a better life for all of us…..they just disagree on what the future will be if X passes.

  • Mike Worcester

    I want to say “No comment” but that would probably be rejected as too negative 🙂

  • MarkUp

    Have you ever considered using algorithms to screen NewsCut comments?

    • Not an option. Would require development time. I am changing my mind on the value of comments however and can see simply shutting them off as a legitimate option.

      • MarkUp

        A tech blog I follow offered this advice:

        Pretend you have a limited number of words you can write in your lifetime, and every word you write brings you closer to your cap. Make your message short, to the point, and worth reading.

        An arbitrary cap on comments (i.e. 10 per article) might be a way to implement this, and make people think twice about what they post. It also limits how far a troll can spiral out of control.

        In your experience, in the cases the comments really add the value you’re looking for, would a cap like this hurt the discourse?

      • Leroy

        Normally I ignore comments on web stories, but I will admit, half the fun of reading Newscut is reading the comments and seeing what the folks with whom I have a differing world view from have to say. (*cough*Fred/Greg*cough). I appreciate that the commentary on here is often quite civil and to the point.

        Even though I disagree with some of the views expressed I think I have better understanding of the world when I am able to hear different opinions.

      • I’m going to adopt some of the NYT’s standards, though

      • Mike Worcester

        This is the only news site I comment on with any measure of regularity precisely because it has a much more informed and yes, civil (generally) than pretty much any other site out there.

        Now I cannot imagine what it takes to moderate these comments. Well, a strong stomach might be one needed attribute, but I maintain that I learn more on here than most any other site.

        As MarkUp noted, there are options such as limits or when a thread reaches a certain threshold of comments, no more?

        Guess I’d just be bummed if this site became like so many others, where it’s just reporting and not an actual discussion of the news.

        • Hikertrash

          Seconded – this is one of the few sites where I bother to read the comments, and certainly the only site where I (rarely) contribute instead of just lurking. I can appreciate that it takes an enormous effort to moderate this section. That effort shines through in the quality of the discourse and the “regulars” that this blog attracts (even if I don’t agree with all of them!).

          • rallysocks


      • KTN

        I post here pretty often, and do so because of the mostly civil discourse between opposing sides. There was a long back and forth yesterday about how the Court would view the business sign telling Muslims to go away. Reasoned argument on both sides, no name calling, just strong voices with reasonable support. This is why I post here. I can lower my outrage meter and actually discuss a topic with smart people.

  • Rob

    My label-free, apolitical opinion is that the Times’ robot endeavor will be an epic fail. Its editorial determinations will be constantly challenged and second-guessed, and it’ll end up satisfying no one – aside from the Times’ bean counters.

  • Will

    Fantastic idea, this will create a fair criteria for how comments are allowed. No bias from different moderators, no inconsistent rules, no personal attacks…this is the best solution so far. The NY Times should release the logic/code they use so all media outlets can use it if they choose.

  • MrE85

    Copy editors violate God’s intention, too.