Engagement. It’s certainly the buzz word of today’s fast-moving media environment. Publishers want to showcase value to advertisers by illustrating how much time people are spending with their content. That means page views are out the door, engaged time metrics are on the rise and shares, likes and tweets are becoming more and more valuable.
Nowhere is there a greater opportunity for media companies to show the value of engagement than in their commenting system. What could be more valuable than the instant feedback of your most loyal readers, responding in real time to news items and returning to a story multiple hours during the day to respond to other readers in the community?
Unfortunately, trolls, racists and ne’er-do-wells have turned most media company commenting boards into a cesspool of avoidable trash that loyal readers with something interesting to stay have learned to avoid. Even worse, advertisers are beginning to take note in an attempt to avoid placing their ad next to a diatribe of racist or sexist bigotry.
The issue of trolls and terrible comments has come back into the forefront recently after editors of Gawker’s women interest site Jezebel issued a public plea to executives after commenters continually were able to upload gore and porn gifs for months through the company’s Kinja commenting system. Making matters worse is Gawker’s requirement that writers are required to interact with commenters, meaning female writers weren’t even able to take the normal step of simply avoiding the comments section entirely.
So, what can newspaper companies do with their commenting system?
Well, if you’re like the Chicago Sun-Times, you can take the bold step of turning them off entirely, at least in the immediate future. Back in April, Sun-Times publisher and editor-in-chief Jim Kirk announced comments from readers online would “temporarily cease” until their fourth quarter, when a new commenting system they’re developing in-house is intended to be launched.
In the interim, the only way readers are able to respond online to stories (besides direct emails to reporters) is through the Sun-Times various social media sites: Facebook, Twitter and Google+. So far (after some initial negative reaction online), Kirk tells Chicago media reporter Robert Feder that the complaints are almost non-existent, and most importantly, there’s been no noticeable drop-off in Web traffic.
“The way we had our commenting set up allowed for trolls to overtake it,” Kirk said. “That was a big turnoff for readers who did want to engage.”
The Sun-Times isn’t alone in killing its comment section. Popular Science removed online comments from stories back in 2013 over fears spamming and trolling were making scientific concepts confusing to readers. Ezra Klein’s news site Vox launched without comments at all, and both the Sporting News and USA Today’s social sports site For The Win recently removed comments. Popular new blogging platform Medium doesn’t allow comments (but does allow reader “notes”), and Tumblr has never allowed comments, which CEO David Karp has said enables the site to avoid “the world of horrible Internet awfulness.”
But don’t expect the majority editors and newspapers and online media companies to start banning comments for one reason—they’re still overwhelmingly in favor of them.
According to a recent survey of editors done by Associated Press Media Editors (APME), 82 percent of respondents said it was either impossible or unlikely they would kill comments on their sites, noting a belief it’s important to encourage community discussions in a public forum.
“Newspapers like to promote the idea they’re setting the public agenda of news,” said University of Houston assistant professor Dr. Arthur D. Santana, whose study found a significant correlation between anonymity and civility online. “They want to build brand loyally, and they’re hoping people will come back to these forums again and again and have them as a place engage in dialogue.
So if comments are here to say, what can editors do to minimize racist, abusive and trolling comments?
Well, as Dr. Santana’s study makes clear, news sites can remove anonymous comments. Surprisingly, APME’s survey reveals that nearly half of editors that responded to APME’s survey reported that commenters could still post anonymously on their site.
Many newspapers have accomplished this by outsourcing their commenting system to a third-party platform. Facebook is the most common, with Disqus coming in second. Both have the benefits of making users log in and sign up, and both have systems in place to up-vote good comments and flag spam (though Disqus also has a feature to down-vote bad comments).
While this additional step does help improve the overfall tone of comments, it’s hardly a complete solution. Not only can trolls simply create fake Facebook accounts to enable a psuedo-anonomidity while commenting, editors noted that many commenters don’t seem concerned about the lack of anonymity, and continue to post horrible comments using their full names.
Salon.com co-founder and media observer Scott Rosenberg doesn’t think anonymity is the problem. He blames the “bar room brawl” atmosphere of many news sites on publishers and editors who simply turn on comments and walk away with no moderation or oversight.
“If you opened a public cafe or a bar in the downtown of a city, failed to staff it, and left it untended for months on end, would you be surprised if it ended up as a rat-infested hellhole?” said Rosenberg. He suggests it’s smarter for news sites to turn off commenting systems that have gone bad, wait a while and reopen once they have a moderation plan ready.
The Huffington Post employs a small army of moderators who delete three-quarters of the site’s millions of incoming comments, according to former HuffPost Media group managing editor Jimmy Soni. Still, many news organizations can’t afford to staff moderators to watch over comment sections 24 hours a day.
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. You can make it harder for users to comment, like Gannett, who have designed a template that hides comments and requires users to click through in order to view and post on their Facebook commenting system. You can also encourage more user participation and rewards, like Reddit, which allows users to promote and reply to worthwhile commenters while down-voting trolls.
Even the New York Times commenting system, often cited as an oasis of worthwhile comments due to its heavy human moderation, doesn’t allow the sort-of free-flowing and engaging conversations readers want to have. This is part of the reason the Times has entered into a partnership with the Washington Post and Mozilla to create a commenting system that can address the problems that plague online comments.
Greg Barber, the director of digital news produces at the Washington Post, told Poynter the new system will include semantic analysis, machine learning and other automated tools. But Knight-Mozilla Open News initiative’s Dan Sinker also seemed to downplay to notion they could eliminate trolls entirely.
“We are not declaring war on assholery,” he told Sam Kirkland. “It’s not a war we’ll be able to win, certainly not at a technical level.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher. Reach him at [email protected]