MEDIA: The Denver Post, troll slayer

Don’t read the comments, don’t feed the trolls.

It’s something you hear plenty in digital media as comment sections become swirling cesspools of incivility.

One of those cauldrons of scum boiled over last week in South Carolina leading The Charleston Post & Courier for the first time to shut down comments on a breaking news story about a local shooting. The piece unleashed a “torrent of racist, conspiratorial, politically-charged and outright bizarre comments.” (Here are just a few.) What’s that have to do with Colorado? The Denver Post is experimenting with a new system that seeks to make comments easier on readers— and on those in the newsroom who moderate them. That’s not an inconsequential task, either. Remember The Boulder Daily Camera killed off comments last summer in part because it didn’t have the resources to police them.

This week for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project I wrote about the Post’s experience with Civil Comments as a troll-slaying testing ground. The vendor, a tech startup, sells its platform to news sites and provides a self-moderation system that requires commenters to rate multiple other comments for civility— and then rate their own comment— before a comment shows up on the site. The system also uses algorithms and machine-learning artificial intelligence to pool data concerning the voting and comment histories of frequent users, in order to filter out bad behavior.

Moving to Civil has been “transformative” for the Postsays Dan Petty, who recently took a corporate audience development job with owner Digital First Media. Meanwhile, “We felt like we could invest in a better commenting tool versus a free system, given the time, resource and mental health savings of not having to moderate hundreds of vile comments from trolls,” says Becky Risch, the paper’s digital director. (The Post’s online producer Dan Schneider, who has overseen the paper’s various comment sections for a decade, says staffers used to spend up to 20 hours a week moderating comments—many times what they spend now.)

Not everyone thinks it’s working, however.

There are other tech startups out there, too, like the Coral Project, which seeks to help newsrooms engage with their audiences in more meaningful ways. Read the full story here about newsroom comments sections and engagement that stretches from Australia to South Carolina and Alaska to our own Colorado.

A media angle on the Hickenlooper-Kasich 2020 pundit pipe dream 

Governors John Hickenlooper™ and John Kasich, aka The Johns, got enough ink last week to fill a bipartisan Buckeye brew pub barrel about a potential 2020 centrist swing state super ticket. (Say that 10 times fast.) The news is catnip in the Trump era and it bubbled up here and nationally for a day or so before both Johns flushed it. “Not a unity ticket, just working with a new friend on hard compromises,” Hick tweeted. “The answer is no, OK?” Kasich said on national TV. But the two did unveil a bipartisan plan to fix the nation’s healthcare system. Amid all the news about this bipartisan bromance was this, published by the insider Beltway news source Axios:

The two are talking to major media companies about a possible podcast or cable show to continue cementing their brand. Their conversations would include politics, policy, and pop culture.

Anything for the brand.

Does a Colorado candidate for governor have a House of Cards problem?

Maybe not at this point, but it’s a ripe inroad to raise this larger question:

The photo is from a scene in one of the later episodes of this season’s Netflix show “House of Cards,” featuring MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow acting like she’s doing a real segment about the fictitious president Frank Underwood. Guess what: There’s actually a real Underwood (first name Erik) running in this year’s Colorado governor’s race. He ran for U.S. Senate as a Republican last year, but he’s now running as a Dem.

Could an image like the one above cause problems for his candidacy if shared widely on social media? Probably not. But take it to a higher level. What if the text on the screen said something really awful? And got passed around on social media by political opponents who could say the image wasn’t even altered. Savvy people might not be fooled, but “fake news” isn’t for the super savvy, and while this is a pretty low-level example of what could happen, it’s a reason to point out why some news consumers believe “real journalists sell their credibility” when they “appear as themselves in TV shows and movies.”

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Longmont Times-Call reported how an energy company is on a collision course with Boulder CountyThe Greeley Tribune localized a national story about school lunch shamingThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel broke news of a state senator potentially using his elected office as a threat in a business disputeThe Pueblo Chieftain covered the State FairThe Steamboat Pilot profiled a high school cross country teamThe Loveland Reporter-Herald reported how use of local warrants is growingThe Denver Post had an exclusive data analysis linking traffic deaths to marijuanaThe Boulder Daily Camera looked at the small Nederland town marshal’s office struggling to keep staffThe Gazette reported how the El Paso County jail is bursting at the seamsThe Durango Herald covered the latest in the FCC saga to get Denver TV stations to parts of Colorado.

Consultant to the government: Don’t buy that newspaper building

This spring was full of talk that city offices could move into old newspaper buildings. Like in Denver where a will-be vacated Denver Post newsroom could be home to downtown bureaucrats. They could rent space from the leased Post when the paper’s staffers bolt for Adams County to save the Post some scratch. Meanwhile, the Steamboat Springs newspaper, Steamboat Pilot & Todayreported in the spring that the paper’s former owner, Worldwest LLC, was thinking of selling the 23,222-square-foot newspaper building and 1.5 acres for $5.5 million. At the time, the local city council was intrigued about the possibility of gobbling it up. But now a few months later a consultant is waving the Steamboat City Council off the deal.

From the paper:

“Several department heads interviewed expressed a desire to stay downtown as a convenience to residents of Steamboat Springs; moving some departments but not all would further fracture city staff and create difficulties with collaboration between currently adjacent departments and staff members,” the consultants wrote. “After speaking with city staff department heads and learning about relationships between departments and their interface with the public, Anderson Hallas (the consultant) does not recommend mobilizing employees to the Pilot Building.”

A local newspaper just can’t help fracturing city government can it?

Are news outlets in the Springs getting troll rolled? 

This week, writing for the alt-weekly in Colorado’s second-largest city, Nat Stein reported how anti-fascists in the Springs believe they’re being framed by rivals. If that account is correct, then it’s a good reason for other local reporters in the city to be concerned about overly credulous reporting. In her story, Stein laid out a case that “a mounting propaganda campaign to villainize left-wing social movements has touched down in Colorado Springs.” The reporter quotes a “spokesperson” for a local anti-fascist group who “requested a pseudonym for security purposes.” The anti-fascists say they’re being set up by others who are vandalizing property and costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in ramped-up security. The unnamed spokesperson for Colorado Springs Anti-Fascists told the paper the group does tag with graffiti— and indicated they would vandalize private property— but says the group did not tag a community park with the anarchy sign, hammer and sickle, and the words “left solida” and “Antifa.” The group thinks it’s a propaganda effort to sow negative sentiment about left-wing social movements.

Later in the story, Stein notes how multiple local TV stations in Colorado Springs recently ran with broadcasts about a flyer posted at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs allegedly written by a Terry Steinawitz. (No student or faculty member with the name exists, but unscramble the letters and see what you come up with). The alleged author posted a flyer called the “Social Justice Collective Weekly” around campus that carried over-the-top commentary suggesting four-year universities like UCCS ban veterans for reasons that are so off-the-wall you have to wonder if the flyer isn’t fake. For instance, part of it reads about veterans: “Their socialization into the military culture is that of a white supremacist organization,” and “all veterans have far right-wing ideologies.”

A UCCS spokesman told the alt-weekly, “There’s a chance it’s satire meant to slander several groups.” But that didn’t make the coverage on TV and in the local daily. Instead initial reporting on the flyer took it at face value. One station went straight to getting reactions from veterans, and another said “being that Colorado Springs is such a large military community, this article and publication have been met with a lot [of] backlash.” A third station, said “several viewers asked 11 News to look into the origin of the newsletter,” but the station didn’t get far in doing so. Nor did it raise the question about whether the flyer might not be legit and could be an attempt to stir the pot.

How a small Colorado newspaper is dealing with city stonewalling

When  Walt Vanatta, the chief of police of nearly two decades was forced out in Craig, Colorado, a town of fewer than 10,000 about four hours northwest of Denver, the local Craig Daily Press naturally wanted to know why. The paper “made multiple attempts to learn the reason” through “several rounds of interviews” with Craig City Manager Mike Foreman, the mayor and members of the city council, “as well as through questions posed to council during the public comment period” at a meeting. But no luck. The paper got stonewalled.

So what did it do? The newspaper produced a textbook example for how to let readers know about the barriers a reporter is encountering from elected leaders in the news-gathering process and explaining how a reporter is trying to break through them.

From The Craig Daily Press reporter Lauren Blair:

Under the Colorado Open Records Act, public bodies are required to provide, upon request, all “writings” made in the process of carrying out official duties. On Tuesday, Craig Press requested copies of all emails and text messages exchanged between Foreman and council members — and also between individual council members — regarding Vanatta’s departure. The request applies to both personal and official accounts and covers the period between June 1 and Aug. 15. In so doing, the newspaper hopes to better answer the following questions.

The paper then runs down a series of specific Qs to try and uncover what happened. The paper also explains what the Colorado Open Records Act, or CORA, entails, what its limits are, and how it might be useful to obtaining information in this particular case. “A CORA request is not a subpoena, nor does it allege wrongdoing,” Blair wrote. “It is an avenue by which any citizen can ensure government is operating transparently, a value hailed by several council members at meetings earlier this month.” Boom.

Reporting like this can engage readers in the process so they feel they have a stake in the outcome. And it’s also suspenseful! I mean, don’t you now want to pay attention to what happens next? I’ll keep an eye out for you.

*This roundup appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE.

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker for Creative Commons on Flickr.