Inside ICUC, the comment-moderation company favoured by media outlets
Last week, the Boston Globe announced it was outsourcing its comment moderation work to a Winnipeg-based company called ICUC. But who is ICUC, what do they do exactly, and what makes outside comment moderation so attractive to venerable media outlets such as the San Francisco Chronicle, the Globe and Mail and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation?
ICUC has been developing online content solutions for nine years, with headquarters in Winnipeg and editors across the world. In an interview, CEO Keith Bilous says 78 clients use their services, from news outlets to brands such as Unilever. ICUC handles the flood of comments swamping many news sites, while also managing Facebook and Twitter feeds, if the clients requests those services.
Why wouldn’t news outlets keep their comment editors in-house? “The volume of content has outgrown a newsroom’s abilities, and resources are stretched,” says Bilous. “Often the economics don’t seem to work for publishing giants because their people can be doing other things than moderating comments.” He adds how bandwidth costs also deter publishers from keeping commenting in-house.
ICUC editors work closely with clients, ironing out details on how strict moderation should be and what articles should be open to comments in the first place. Guidelines are set during these initial meetings.
For instance, the Boston Globe’s moderation policy states: “As a rule, we permanently disable comments on all stories about people who have experienced a personal tragedy, as well as all obituaries.”
Closing a story off from comments may seem detrimental to a news site’s goal to better engage with readers. But Bilous disagrees, saying some stories just aren’t ideal for commentary. For stories about horrific crimes, for instance, “what’s the value of opening it up to commenters? Out of 1,000 comments, 998 will say nothing but bad things…Does it really serve the community to have a discussion about killers such as Russell Williams?
Bilous addressed the oft-discussed topic of whether journalists should reply to comments and questions posted on their articles. “No question a comment community is more vibrant and responsive if someone who had written the story responded to their concerns. An up-and-coming journalist could reply and engage with readers and drive more conversations. Unfortunately there are a number of journalists who still don’t get that view. There are battles in many newsrooms over this issue.”
The major online commenting news this year involved Facebook’s Comments feature for third-party sites (much like on DigitalJournal.com and TechCrunch). People could comment on news articles using their Facebook profile, and the conversation would appear on the social network site. And vice versa. Shouldn’t companies like ICUC and Disqus be worried about this development?
Bilous brushes off the Facebook Comments rollout. “Even when Facebook launched this project, we got more calls from publishers so it hasn’t impacted our business negatively.” He asks rhetorically, “Does the world want to truly go to a 100 percent non-anonymous commenting environment?”
ICUC envisions only more business ahead, Bilous says. “With all the volume of content continue to weight down publishers, the future is very bright for us.” And due to increased revenue, is Bilous profitable? “Very,” he answers immediately, without citing specific figures. “We’re definitely in the black.”