• Bryan Hall

Salt Lake Tribune Uses World Table To Reign in Commenting Community, Increase Engagement

After first 90 days of implementation, Utah’s independent daily newspaper increases commenting page views by 21% with new comment system

Deemed “Utah’s Independent Voice since 1871,” readers of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Salt Lake Tribune, have been passionately commenting on the local, regional, and national headlines on the newspaper’s online platform for the past decade. Actively inviting readers to add to conversations on politics, community news, religion, sports, lifestyle stories, and even movie reviews, the Tribune continues their near-150-year legacy of watchdog journalism as they aim to engage and empower their readers.

CHALLENGE: Unchecked and uncivil commenting was damaging the Salt Lake Tribune Brand.

Maintaining productive, civil conversations on the Tribune’s platform has been a constant battle. Internet trolls bent on instigating arguments, discrediting fellow commenters, promoting their own agendas have required extensive manpower and vigilant monitoring. The newspaper’s previous commenting platform, provided little to no safeguards.

As the state’s highly regarded and largest independent newspaper, serving as an alternative voice to the conservative Deseret News, The Salt Lake Tribune has fought against the tarnished branding brought about by trolls that continually detracted from legitimate and thoughtful conversations.

Part of that fight required an extensive staff to constantly monitor the comments on hundreds of stories a week. If not regularly policed, the system allowed a toxic environment that was dominated by trolls.

The challenge of monitoring comments on a major newspaper’s website is a complicated problem every major news outlet across the globe faces. Many papers have given up and turned their comments off altogether. However, the Tribune felt that was not an acceptable response from a trusted news leader in the community. But leaving your platform as a wide open free for all for a bunch of trolls is also not acceptable.

SOLUTION: Removing the “bad” brings you the “good.”

The Salt Lake Tribune teamed up with World Table to address the problem. “The Salt Lake Tribune represented an opportunity for us to showcase the strength of our product and tackle what we felt was heretofore an unsolved problem,” said Bryan Hall, CEO of World Table. “We knew if we could do it well here we could do it for any paper.”

Working closely with the Tribune, the World Table team focused almost all their energy on the Tribune’s long term goals.

“Our highest priority was not only to stop the bad commenters, but to identify and promote the good commenters,” said Jack Donaldson, COO and Head of Product for World Table, “When you elevate the good content the community brings, the commenting section actually becomes a place where your readers want to visit and spend time.” A theory that has seemingly proved itself out at the Tribune.

At first glance, these 90-day results are marked because of the 21% increase in average page views on comments compared with. But, this result becomes even more interesting when you consider that the increase in page views came in spite of a significant decrease in commenting volume. In fact, average number of page views per comment increased by 60%.

“Every indication is that removing the bad brings you the good,” said Hall. “Remember, we’re not just removing 46% of the comments being made, we’re targeting a very particular kind of commenter and certain types of comments. That’s what the system was designed to do.”

HOW IT WORKS: Distinguishing the good from the bad is the key

“There is a lot of complexity that makes our system work, but the simple version is we’ve added reputation, accountability, and community moderation into the commenting system. But, we all know the nature of online communities, and you’d be right to guess that straight up peer-to-peer feedback isn’t usually enough.” said Donaldson. “We’ve found that a balance of community feedback, algorithms, and a little human touch is the only way to reliably identify and promote the best comments while diminishing the bad comments.”

After only 90 days of community interactions at the Salt Lake Tribune and with minimal moderation efforts, the average World Table “reputation” scores for users identified as brand spoilers decreased by more than 60%, while average scores of brand advocates remain high.

“Once you have a reputation metric that does a decent job of predicting comment quality, of coarse you’d want to promote the best content in the comment threads,” said Donaldson.

Another way good comments are elevated to the top is what’s known as the “Well Said” feature. The system helps identify possible “Well Said” recipients but a human being can intercede and actually approve whether it goes live or not.

Comment views for “Well Saids” increased 3X, as did number of replies, while the number of Kudos was nearly 4X as many.

When you compare all of this to the way things were before, you can see why the Tribune likes the new system. “There are signs we are improving the conversation even as we’re getting fewer comments,” says Tim Fitzpatrick, Deputy Editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, “In fact, we dramatically reduced our comments volume without seeing a drop in comments page views, and that by itself is pretty interesting.”

The folks at World Table are also pleased. “We still have a long way to go if we’re going to change the whole newspaper industry,” Hall says with a huge smile, “but this is a major step in the right direction.”