In tackling a problem that’s been around almost as long as news organizations have been publishing on the web—toxic story comment sections—a Knight Foundation-funded project could help solve a much bigger one: How to get individual readers to pay for local journalism.
The Coral Project, run by a team from the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Mozilla Foundation, has been developing reader engagement tools and a major story commenting platform aimed at elevating civic discourse around the news and helping news organizations reclaim conversations that have moved to social media.
Story comment sections can range from an irrelevant, trolling bickerfest, to a racist, mysogynistic dumpster fire. The worse they get, the more likely newsrooms are to ignore them, when ignoring them in the first place made them what they are today.
The Coral Project is aiming not just to “clean them up,” although that must be the starting point. It sees great opportunity for publishers to use story comments (and related reader engagement functions, such as surveys and user-generated content) to strengthen and broaden their customer base.
People who comment on stories are obviously engaged with your brand, are more likely to be subscribers, and visit your website more often and read more stories than those who don’t.
They’re visiting you regularly, but you never say hello and never get to know them.
Researchers have also found that the toxic, abusive nature of story comment sections leads to fewer comments and fewer commenters, meaning that your failure to censor comments that cross a line, or ban abusive trolls, is keeping other people away. (People who are, no doubt, less likely to engage in abusive behavior themselves, and more likely to be women or members of minority populations.)
So we’re ignoring the customers who do show up, and not even seeing the ones who have stopped coming because the environment is unsafe.
A more holistic approach would see the story comments as a customer relations management platform.
It would start with hitting a reset button that includes banning abusive behavior and abusive people, a commitment to interacting with readers, and actively listening. The Coral Project’s free platform could be a great start for many publishers.
But then, why not track your most prolific and most respected/helpful commenters, and integrate this information with your subscriber database? Create a “potential” subscriber list and start to intentionally move people up a ladder of engagement with your organization.
The occasional reader is the potential regular reader. The regular reader is the potential commenter. The commenter is the potential source for a story or crowdsourcing project. The most engaged and loyal are prospects to help pay for your news coverage through a subscription, or some kind of membership program.
Maybe subscribers or members are placed in a different tier, and their story comments go up on the site without advance moderation by staff, or carry other privileges. A handful of publishers have experimented with allowing only paid subscribers to comment. It’s an interesting idea, but misses the opportunity to introduce people to what you are doing and then convert them to paying supporters.
Growing reader revenue as a hedge against the major challenges of advertising right now is a big priority for most publishers. And there are opportunities beyond subscriptions or memberships—including paid newsletters, a live events business and selling merchandise.
Story comments could be a starting point in cultivating relationships with, and knowledge of, the individual readers who will make or break these opportunities.
Author’s Note: In addition to funding The Coral Project, the Knight Foundation also provides significant financial support to LION Publishers, a nonprofit organization that employs the author.
Matt DeRienzo is executive director of LION Publishers, an organization that supports local independent online news publishers from across the country. He is a longtime former newspaper reporter, editor, publisher and corporate director of news.