Where Did All the Sentinel Comments Go?

I was talking to a public official the other day about something, and he said, "I don't blog on the Sun-Sentinel anymore. They want my blood type and my mother's birth city. It's too much."

Other than misusing the verb "blog" (people comment, and people blog; it's not one and the same), the fellow had a good point. Now anyone who wants to comment on the newspaper's website must register and fill out a form of questions. It doesn't include your mother's birth city, but it does ask for your name, email address, Zip Code, and year of birth.

It's part of the Sentinel's recent redesign, in which it has abandoned the software company Topix and gone in a different direction. And the unhappy public official clearly isn't alone in his dissatisfaction. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the number of comments on the Sentinel site has plummeted since the redesign. A lot of stories now go commentless, and some that normally would have hit triple digits are pulling in under 20. Take today's story about the sex offender who allegedly asked to be returned to jail. Normally that would be flooded with dozens of comments, many of them calling for castration and capital punishment. Instead, it has only 18 so far, and one of them is complaining about the new comment system:

This comment board is limited! Elementary school levels at best. Is this it? The big new and improved comments board we're supposed to be anticipating. No priority posting, no replying to other posters, No notification of new posts on any previous topic. SS there are questions and concerns here! Why don't you answer them? Deception should not be your motive. You know where you're going with this; how about being truthful. Topix is a successful software and company; why not change back to it? Can you not see the lack of participation in any forum? Do you just not care?

Interesting questions. This seems to be something that is happening companywide, including at the Tribune Co.-owned Daily Press. Here's a back-and-forth on the change there:

Re: the changes to your Web site. The removal of Topix as a forum for comments is the most glaring change. Now you can only see three comments. Why the removal, and is there a way to change it so that all comments on a given subject can be read?

Editor: We want your comments on stories, and there's still room for that exchange of ideas. The ability to connect people interested in a topic is an important part of any Web site. We have switched the company that handles the comment software, though. We've been assured that improvements are on the way, but we're not sure of the timetable. 

The registration process is a business decision. It will help market the newspaper and could eventually make it easier to go to a pay product (though there's no indication the Sentinel is leaning in that direction). But it's also clearly scared off a lot of commenters, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. A good portion of the comments in the past came from racists and idiots who added nothing but hate and ugliness to the conversation. But I can't help but believe that it will forever scare off a lot of good comments too, especially from government officials, political people, and public employees who don't want anyone to know who they are but have valuable information to add.

You know, like Judy Stern. 

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman