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At the ProJo, a bid to end the commenters' war

The discussion in the comments section under providencejournal.com stories is often filled with invective - directed at the politicians and accused criminals featured in the stories (sometimes one-in-the-same) and, often, at the Providence Journal itself.

Well, starting today, the newspaper is launching a new bid to clean up the conversation - and push it out into the social web.

The paper is now using Facebook Comments. If you want to comment at providencejournal.com, you've got to be logged into Facebook. When you post, your name and Facebook profile photo will appear next to whatever you write. Your comment will also pop up on your Facebook page, unless you uncheck a "Post to Facebook" box.

The idea, of course, is that a reader will hesitate to post something nasty or inappropriate if his name and visage is attached to the message. The paper is also hoping that, by cross-posting comments to Facebook, it can drive more traffic to providencejournal.com 

The broadsheet is not the first to use Facebook Comments. And by some measures, the early returns are pretty good. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, saw higher-quality conversation after installing the system on its blogs - though not its news stories - in the Spring of 2011. And a few months after the launch, it reported that Facebook referals had jumped four-and-a-half times over the previous year. Not all of that gain can be attributed to Facebook Comments, of course, but it seems to have played a role.

There may be a reason, though, for the paper's decision to hold steady on its news stories comment sections. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer has continued to allow anonymous posts, even though the paper was the target of a $50 million lawsuit by a local judge who claimed it had inaccurately attributed comments to her. The paper's editor-in-chief told NetNewsCheck last year that it wanted to maintain a diverse array of opinion. And an editor at the Akron Beacon-Journal, which also allows anonymous comments, said that paper did not want to scare off anonymous tipsters.

These concerns did not dissuade the ProJo, obviously. But there is a business issue to be considered, too: the paper is not well positioned to get the full social-media bump Facebook Comments might provide. Most of its journalism, after all, is locked behind a "hard paywall" and cannot be easily accessed via Facebook links.

Still, the move - like it or not - looks like an attempt at web saviness for a paper that has struggled in the online space. 

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