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With so much news commenting descending into trolldom, is there a better way for publications to enable — and engage with — the best comments of their readers?

The Knight Foundation aims to find out.

It announced today a grant of $3.89 million to a collaboration between the Mozilla Foundation, The New York Times, and The Washington Post to “build a new content and commenting platform that will allow audiences to more deeply engage with media coverage” and allow news organizations to better manage those opinions.

“Think about the way Nate Silver went from an anonymous commenter to an impresario,” the Knight Foundation’s John Bracken told VentureBeat. He’s director of journalism and media innovation there.

“The potential is for users to contribute more robustly to an article, and to build their own reputations,” he said.

The result, open-source and freely available to publishers of all sizes, could allow readers to better track their posts and online identities. Publishers could more easily collect content for stories and get discussions going with sparks of targeted content or notices.

“The approach is not that we’re building a thing or even a platform,” Mozilla’s Dan Sinker told us, “but we’re building blocks, something [developers or administrators] can assemble” that could include aspects of different kinds of systems, plus custom additions.

“This is an opportunity for the Post and the Times to take parts” of their commenting/user participation systems, he added, and make them available to any news organization in a series of open-source modules.

The Times, for instance, has been a leader in developing new forms of online reader participation. Sinker pointed to the publication’s seeking out user feelings or user-submitted photos related to a story. But even the Post and the Times have directions they want to go.

‘The bad actors, the trolls’

“[We have tools] available to us to deal with the bad actors, the trolls,” Greg Barber, director of the Post’s Digital News Project, told us.

“But we don’t have a lot of tools to manage the good stuff.”

Barber said a key purpose will be to address “a question I’ve [often] gotten from reporters – how do I get to the good stuff [from user comments]?”

The platform will address that in two main ways, he said.

First, the system will employ “semantic analysis and machine learning to manage the contributors,” and to bring the best contributions to the top.

Then, the “users who contribute thoughtfully will probably be the ones who contribute thoughtfully in the future,” and, through means to be determined, the most trustworthy users will be sifted up to the top, according to the publisher’s needs.

Users “wouldn’t do much differently [under the new system],” Barber said. Sinker added that users might be able to see all of their past submissions to a publisher’s site, or even all of their contributions to a specific story across sites using the as-yet-unnamed system.

The project began with informal conversations between the Post and the Times last November. They then approached the Knight Foundation, which was interested and recommended the involvement of Mozilla, whose Knight-Mozilla Open News Initiative Knight already supports and which Sinker leads. Funding was awarded several weeks ago and runs for two years.

Barber said the development, which will be based at a to-be-determined location in New York City, will be conducted on “an iterative basis,” with builds released as available. While the architecture has not yet been determined, Sinker noted that he “can’t envision it won’t be [available] in the cloud.”

Comments, anyone?

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