The New York Times, WaPo and Mozilla are building an open-source community platform to try and fix comments

Media companies both large and small may differ on many things — the value of print, the efficacy of paywalls, and so on — but one thing they almost all agree on is that reader comments are a wasteland of trolls and flame wars. There have been attempts to fix that problem in a number of ways, but many have simply given up trying and handed their comments over to Facebook. Now, a joint venture between the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project is going to try and come up with an alternative.

The new venture isn’t just about comments either: as Dan Sinker, who runs the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project, described in a blog post announcing the collaboration, it is intended to be a platform that allows media companies to connect with their readers on a number of different levels — including by allowing them to upload photos and contribute to the journalism that is being done by those outlets. As Sinker told the New York Times:

“The web offers all sorts of new and exciting ways of engaging with communities far beyond the ubiquitous — and often terrible — comments sections at the bottom of articles. With this collaboration, we’re bringing together top talent to build new tools for newsrooms to engage.”

The project is being funded by a $3.89-million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Miami-based entity that funds the OpenNews project (with a similar-sized grant) and also donates to or funds a variety of journalism and media projects and startups throughout the United States. The platform will be open source and available to any media company to implement.

Not just for comments but for interaction

One feature of the new venture, according to Greg Barber — the Wqshington Post‘s director of digital news projects and a member of the steering group behind the project — is that it will use software algorithms to highlight the most relevant comments on a specific article, and to categorize and rank commenters based on their contributions. The New York Times has experimented in the past with highlighting comments in its stories, and also with allowing certain readers to post without having their comments read by a moderator.

The new platform sounds a little like an open-source version of Kinja, the commenting and reader-submission system that Gawker Media’s Nick Denton launched last year. The platform not only allows readers to comment, but effectively gives every commenter their own blog as well, and Gawker routinely highlights posts from its reader community alongside the posts that are published by its own staff. Denton has said repeatedly that he sees the discussion and contributions of readers as equally important to the journalism they are responding to.

On a personal note, I have written a number of times about the value of reader comments and community for media outlets — something I tried to help promote in my previous job as the “communities editor” of a large newspaper. It has become fashionable for media companies to either hand their comments over to Facebook, or in some cases get rid of them altogether, because of the spam and troll problem. But doing so removes a very powerful form of community engagement, in my view.

I hope that this new project will be able to design something that not only helps with those problems, but can give media companies some of the tools for community-building that they desperately need. I will be watching it with interest.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Tony Margiocchi