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Editorial: Comments are back, with a few key changes

in Breaking News/Opinion

By Shereen Siewert, Editor and Publisher

From the time we launched Wausau Pilot and Review, we recognized the value in a vibrant comment section that offers a central means of distinguishing our media from its older, more traditional predecessors. Comments are critical for building online communities and ensuring that journalists participate in a two-way dialogue, rather than monologues, with readers.

We recognize, too, that we are compelled to answer to our readers who often provide valuable challenges and corrections to stories. Our readers are an invaluable asset as they bolster our efforts by providing insight, information, and commentary that furthers the story and can lead to new avenues of reporting.

For a time, we struggled with a rash of toxic discourse that severely diluted the value of our comment section. Many other news outlets have, for this very reason, abolished their comment sections altogether. We were tempted to do that, too, and for about two weeks, we banned comments altogether on the Wausau Pilot and Review site. (Facebook commenting remained.)

But this week, a number of readers reminded us that comments can indeed be valuable tools that can make our organization stronger. And, as one reader put it, there is no such thing as too much democracy.

Now, we are changing course and are taking steps to make ours better.

Journalists often tout their responsibility to hold the powerful accountable. Comments are a way to hold journalists themselves accountable. Unlike posts on social media, comments occupy the same space as the stories and travel with them as they’re shared across platforms. Comments also make it possible for people to share their reactions without having to connect them to a social media account. That’s why we will continue to be strong proponents of comments while working hard to respond to them.

At their best, comments are a forum for lively debate of the issues reported on or expressed in a piece, as well as a source for personal experiences and further information related to the story. They can be a place for us to answer questions and find ideas for further reporting. The forum suffers, however, when it devolves into bitter personal attacks and protracted feuds between commenters: Few people have the time or inclination to sort through lengthy bickering in order to find the nuggets of thought-provoking wisdom.

In our updated commenting guidelines, we encourage readers to “strive to attack the substance of arguments, rather than the person who is making them,” while erring on the side of encouraging free debate. Until now, our comments have been powered by a basic system that lacks the tools of a modern comments platform, and we did not have a clear guideline to follow. We have implemented several changes that we think will make the overall experience a better one for our readers. Read our guidelines here, which we will be strictly enforced.

While using your real name is encouraged, we also recognize that in a small community such as Wausau there are valid reasons why people choose to comment under a pseudonym, such as fear of retaliation or the very real possibility of retribution from an employer.

Please let us know your thoughts by responding (where else?) in the comments. We look forward to reading your contributions.

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