Searching for Civility

May 10, 2010

How One Upstart’s Rebranding Online Comments

This is one in a series of posts based on or inspired by research for my Contemporary Media Issues class on how the challenges and opportunities associated with presenting news online are affecting journalistic values.

Screen grab of Civil Beat website header

Hawaii online news upstart Civil Beat is attempting to build a brand around intelligent, value-adding conversation between its journalists and audience. Reflecting this, it doesn’t call its reporters reporters. It calls them reporter-hosts. Anxious to show off his venture’s progress at the end of its first week, founder Pierre Omidyar — yes, the eBay guy — tweeted: “When is the last time you saw thoughtful comments at a news site?” linking out to the latest user dispatches.

The comments indeed were atypical of what’s normally found on local news sites. Missing were the ignorant, hate-filled, lazy comments that discourage serious participation. In their place were informed, respectful, crafted comments that encourage more like them.

It’s early yet, but how is Civil Beat doing it? First, it’s erected costs to participation. Commenters have to surrender both a monthly subscription fee as well as their anonymity. Second, it’s made responding to comments part of reporters and editors’ regular duties. If the person who wrote the story is hanging out on the comment boards all the time, users are likely to be more respectful. Compare it to how students change the tenor of their conversation depending on whether the teacher’s in or out of the room.

We’ll see whether Civil Beat can sustain this over time. We’re dealing with early adopters here, civic and news junkies accustomed to conversing diplomatically. As more everyday people join the audience and attention moves from the novelty of Civil Beat to the tenuous, emotional issues it covers, the tone could change.

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