In the beginning, before Facebook got rich from friending and Twitter begat trending tweets, the Free Press created our virtual water cooler.
The early days of our online commenting system were often without form and sometimes void.
But out of that darkness came light from the voices and views of our readers as they joined the dialogue and debate at winnipegfreepress.com.
And it was good.
Nearly eight years later, it is still good. Each month, our website attracts about 80,000 comments. Comments that add value to our journalism. Comments that flow from communities that have grown organically around our stories and columns. Comments that have created a new era of engagement.
But mixed in with the good and the bad is the ugly. And by ugly, I'm talking about the digital diatribes that go well beyond poor taste to hate and outright racism.
Our tracking shows only about three per cent of comments posted end up being flagged and half of those end up being removed for violating our terms and conditions. But 1.5 per cent is still 1,200 comments too many, so we are making a change in our online commenting policy in order to improve the conversation on our website.
As of Monday, June, 3, only those who subscribe to the Free Press, either for home delivery or online, will be able to comment.
The thinking behind our policy change is the bulk of the ugliness that lands from time to time on our website comes from those abusing the "free" in Free Press to engage in gutter talk or worse on our no-cost forum. In some cases, it appears people will register for a free account just to launch a drive-by smear and then never post again.
By contrast, those who see such value in the Free Press that they are willing to pay to access what we write and to join the conversation will also respect and value the standards of tolerance and decency we demand as part of the online dialogue and debate.
To put it bluntly, we want to keep the party-crashers out so those who've paid for the right to be part of the online conversation can do so without being turned off by yahoos spewing vile and bile.
There will no doubt be some who will accuse the Free Press of limiting their right to free speech, or complain that we're not living up to the "free" in Free Press. They, of course, are entitled to their opinion, but, just for the record, there are no charter rights requiring us to have their voice heard at our water cooler.
I recognize we might initially see a drop in the number of online comments posted. But the goal here is the quality of the online debate, not the quantity.
The conversations will still be free-wheeling. You can use your real name when commenting or pseudonym if that's your choice. Nothing will change other than taking the anti-social behaviour out of a key part of the social media at the Free Press.
If you've already registered online as a Free Press subscriber, you are ahead of the game. If you are a subscriber, click on "register" to get your user name and password. If you are not a subscriber, click on the "subscribe" button to get started or call our audience development department at 204-697-7001.
For the next week, anyone and everyone can comment on this story for free. Please do, as I will be watching and responding.
UPDATE: New Commenting Policy FAQ
Will non-subscribers be able to read the news?
Will non-subscribers be able to read the comments?
Will non-subscribers be able to report comments as abusive?
Yes. Any reader can report a comment as abusive.
Will non-subscribers be able to give comments thumbs-up or thumbs-down?
No. Only subscribers will be able to vote comments up or down.
Will I have to comment using my real name?
No, readers can still use pseudonyms. Their pseudonym will be connected with their real name behind the scenes in the Free Press subscription and commenting system, but not publicly.
I subscribe by Kindle, or to the e-edition. Will I be able to comment?
Yes. Please contact Customer Service to connect your accounts.
I subscribe to the Archives. Will I be able to comment?
No. The Archives login system does not currently connect with our subscriber database.
Will I be able to comment using Facebook?
No. We cannot connect Facebook logins to the subscriber database.
If I buy a single copy of the paper at a store, will I be able to comment?
No. Just a note: If you buy the paper at a store regularly, consider subscribing: in some cases delivery might cost less.
I'm going on holidays. Will I be able to comment while I'm away?
If you put your subscription on hold while you're away, you will be able to comment. If you cancel your subscription while you're away, you will not.
Will my existing account be removed or deleted? Will I have to start all over?
No accounts will be deleted and existing usernames will not be "up for grabs."
If you are a subscriber and your winnipegfreepress.com login is connected to your subscription, nothing will change and you will still be able to comment.
If you are not a subscriber, your existing comments will remain on the site but you will not be able to submit new ones – unless or until you subscribe and connect your subscription to the email address you use to log in. Essentially your account will be dormant.
If you are a subscriber but your winnipegfreepress.com account is NOT connected to your subscription, contact our Customer Service department to connect your email address to your subscription. If you choose not to connect your commenting account to your subscription, you will no longer be able to add new comments under that name.
If you comment using Facebook: Unfortunately we cannot connect Facebook login information to our subscriber database. If you previously commented via Facebook, you will no longer be able to log in using that account. Please register on winnipegfreepress.com, then connect that account to your subscription.
I’m not a six-day subscriber. Will I still be able to comment?
Yes. If you take any level of subscription, you will be able to comment – even on those days you do not get the paper delivered.
How many commenting accounts will be available for each subscription?
Two email addresses can be associated with each subscription. Contact Customer Service to add or change the email addresses associated with your subscription. Starting next week you will be able to update and add email addresses through an online form.
Isn’t this just a cash grab?
The goal of this change is to improve the quality of debate, not raise revenue. In fact, the conventional wisdom is that we will lose online readership over this move, which will impact us in terms of what we are able to charge for online ads. However, our hope is that comments and readership will increase over time as readers who have been turned off by our comments section in the past return.
Why do you think people who can afford a subscription will be better commenters?
It’s not that we think people who can pay are less likely to be jerks. It’s that we think jerks – especially the "drive-by" variety who register, post a terrible comment, and leave – are less likely to pay. Additionally we hope that linking commenting accounts to real-life identities, even behind the scenes, will improve commenters' sense of their own accountability for what they say. Also we hope this will reduce the occurrence of banned commenters launching new accounts.
Why not force commenters to use their real names?
This is something we have considered – however there are practical problems associated with it. There is generally no sense in requiring people’s full names unless you have a method by which to verify the name – otherwise you end up with a lot of "John Q. Publics" and commenters who happen to have the same names as celebrities. In our Letters to the Editor section, every letter-writer is contacted personally to verify their identity before publication. That’s possible because we publish about a dozen letters per day. However we have more than 40,000 registered commenters posting thousands of comments per day, so applying the same standards online would be a daunting task.
Additionally, many of our commenters say they appreciate the anonymity of posting under a pseudonym as they feel they have the freedom to reveal information (for example, about goings-on at their workplace, or about their personal lives) that they might not if they had to use their real name. We had a story on this topic in the paper about a year ago.
Why not just screen all comments before they go up?
The Free Press used to do this, however we now receive a prohibitively large number of comments. As a result commenters were waiting hours and hours for moderators to get to their comments. To give a sense of the time that would be required to do this: If a comment takes, for example, an average of 30 seconds to read, we would have spent more than 700 hours pre-screening comments in April.
Does this mean you won’t block comments by subscribers, or that subscribers cannot be banned?
No. The existing Terms and Conditions will still apply. Comments will still be post-moderated. Comment will still be blocked if they do not meet our terms, and users will still be banned if they consistently fail to meet our terms.
Will you cancel the subscriptions of commenters who make bad comments under the new system?
No. As is the case today, being banned will not affect a person’s subscription.
What are my subscription options?
Please see our Subscriptions section for details on offers available to you, or give us a call at 204-697-7001.
I’m not a subscriber. How can I share my opinion?
You can still share your opinion with the paper by writing a Letter to the Editor for consideration for publication. You can also share your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Free Press’ Facebook page or tweet at @WinnipegNews on Twitter. Or come down to the Winnipeg Free Press News Cafe and say hello in person.
If you are looking, rather, for a place to share your opinion without having to subscribe and/or with less or no moderation, you might consider checking out Reddit. Or, of course, you could start your own blog or Twitter account, print a pamphlet, etc.
I thought this was a "free" press!
The title of "free press" traditionally indicates a newspaper’s politics and ideology are not restricted or controlled by government censorship – differentiating the publication from state-owned or state-controlled media outlets. The term does not oblige the publication of everything submitted to the newspaper.
But what about my free speech?
This change does not limit your right to freedom of expression. You are still free to express your opinion. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not oblige any entity to provide a platform for one’s opinion.
I’m not going to subscribe just for the privilege of posting comments!
OK. Totally up to you, of course.