By: Gretchen A. Peck
From the outside looking in, it may appear to non-newspaper folks that the industry is abandoning some of its principles—free speech, open conversation, introspection, cynicism—by shuttering a feature of online publishing that’s been ubiquitous for as long as there have been websites: reader comments. Publishers of all types of content—not just news—are struggling with how to encourage dialog with the communities they serve, without merely offering a platform for rampant vitriol. Some have taken the approach that they’ll only allow for commenting on certain types of non-controversial content. Others are trashing comment forums altogether.
Popular Science magazine nixed comments from its site. Other magazines and online publications have followed suit—either wholesale disabling comments, or taking a piecemeal approach to the content about which readers may remark.
Fed up with the online nastiness, the Sun-Times Media Group temporarily suspended article comments in the Chicago Sun-Times and some of its other titles recently. Sun-Times managing editor Craig Newman reported in a blog that the forums “too often turn into a morass of negativity, racism, hate speech and general trollish behaviors that detract from the content.” Newman said that work is going on behind the scenes to develop a new commenting platform that addresses these concerns and enables the publisher to better moderate conversations. What that platform will look like was unknown, as of this writing.
There’s no shortage of tools to facilitate conversations between publishers and readers. Disqus, for example, boasts that more than 3 million websites deploy its free plug-in. ReadrBoard’s annotation technology has been embraced by publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, ProPublica, Fast Company, and the Bangor Daily News. And Gawker Media made waves when it launched its homegrown Kinja discussion platform and rolled it out to the web.
By and large, the structure of comment threads have maintained status quo for more than a decade, according to Amanda Michel, open editor of The Guardian (U.S.). “In general, I think there’s still a lot of work that can be done, and in fact commenting itself could develop in a number of different directions,” she said.
Still, platform technology only addresses part of the problem of online engagement for newspaper publishers that continue to struggle with tone, rules of engagement, resources for moderation and policing sites, making them wonder: Is any of this worth it?
The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Ugly
Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon, senior online reporter, said that publishers have been taken aback by the degradation of online conversation: “What you generally get is people arguing about who’s more stupid, so I certainly understand the dismay. I also understand the promise of comments, but I think it’s a promise that’s rarely been met. [Online comments] are like the Bode Miller of publishing. We keep thinking that they’re going to come through for us at some point.”
Commentary may skew reader comprehension, and emotions may be digitally “contagious,” as suggested by a March 12, 2014 study titled, “Detecting Emotional Contagion in Massive Social Networks” (bit.ly/1oubnhz).
Less surprising, perhaps, is that readers simply don’t want to get mired in ugly, downward spirals of dialog. That may engage a certain ilk, but readers who come to newspapers for intelligent, vetted content, are often repelled rather than engaged by that “talk.”
“You can allow for passion. You can allow for a certain amount of strong wording, without it degrading into personal attacks and incivility, which is the kind of environment that’s a turn-off to read, as well as to participate in,” said Sasha Koren, deputy editor, interactive news, community and social media at The New York Times. “But I think we’re all struggling—publishers, in general—about how to make a good space that people want to engage in, and maybe add something to the journalism, rather than detract from it.”
Michel challenges the notion that commenting should be portrayed as “monolithic” and inherently nasty. “When it comes to news organizations, there’s a lot to actually learn, and commenting is something you need to invest in,” she said. The Guardian deploys a team of moderators based in the United Kingdom, who have the added challenge of moderating and policing comments from an international audience, where linguistic and cultural differences sometimes obstruct productive conversation.
“We’ve taken some creative approaches to try to solve those problems,” Michel explained. “For example, Katie Rogers, who is on our editorial team, has a lovely Tumblr called ‘English to English,’ which is devoted to debating and discussing [language] differences between Americans, Brits, and Aussies. And one of the things we’ve contemplated is to eventually integrate it into the site. So if a British commenter writes ‘cheers,’ it would have an underscore beneath it, and you could click on it, and it would bring up the Tumblr post on ‘cheers.’
“We’ve also considered showing our readers’ geographic locations, because people really do come to things from a different context, and it makes for—we think, in many instances—more interesting conversation.”
Now, with the onslaught of social media, do newspaper publishers even need to have a forum on their websites for reader commentary? Is it redundant?
Koren pointed out that conversations are different in cyber spaces such as Twitter and Facebook, compared to a publisher’s website. In the social media sphere, it becomes immediately obvious that many commenters don’t read beyond headlines and ledes. They’re simply not clicking through to the reporting itself.
“We’ve got to give readers the ability to comment where they’re reading, hopefully, the full story, rather than just a snippet,” she said. “You’re not going to get that context elsewhere. We see, in social media, that a certain percentage of [readers] have not clicked-through before responding to a topic. I definitely think there’s huge value in having comments on-site. It’s a big step, a big consideration of resources, but it’s valuable—more so than just having a social media stream and reaction there.”
Conventional web wisdom taught publishers that engaging readers by welcoming online comments was a great way to grab those coveted eyeballs and keep them trained on web pages. And that’s great, particularly in the vein of advertising; however, a publisher that only thinks about commenting in those terms is missing a huge opportunity to learn from readers and to break down barriers between editorial and audience.
“As a writer, it’s gratifying to me that people are reading and thinking about what I’m saying, what I’m writing,” said Beaujon. “Even if I hate what they have to say, I love it. I think that commenting, in a weird way, is an act of love.
“A lot of newspaper people and other journalists, of course, are more accessible than people might think they would be the ability to connect to the people whose stuff you’ve been reading does seem special.”
Koren said that her colleague, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristoff, does an exemplary job at not just engaging readers in conversation, but in tearing down the scrim so readers can backstage and better understand his process. “It does give us a great way of humanizing a journalist, though I don’t know that every op-ed columnist or journalist is up for that. It’s a big commitment, and Nick has sort of taken it on with great gusto,” Koren said.
“News organizations need to figure out how they want to make responding to readers a part of a journalist’s job. I think it’s a really good idea to peel back some of the mystery. But I don’t think any of us have begun to scratch the surface of how we can make this a regular part of the reporting process. It’s no longer about just submitting your final copy, having it go through editing and copyediting before it’s published. There’s a life beyond.”
Of course, not all commentary online is a cesspool of nasty. Given some structure, these conversations may not only be productive, but they may be compelling enough to fuel further investigation and reporting. Koren offers her colleague Elisabeth Rosenthal’s work as an example. Rosenthal has been reporting on the costs of medical procedures and culled through reader commentary for sources and perspectives, which informed follow-up columns.
Labeling reader contributions “comments” may not even be the right term to use anymore. In the ideal sense, these are conversations more than mere feedback.
“The great differentiator is whether or not reporters are active in the comments,” said Michel. “The extent to which they are ultimately changes the nature of the comments, because there’s a symbiotic relationship between not just the piece and the comments, but the person who wrote it and the people who read it.”
Strategize and Experiment
Late last year, The Huffington Post revamped its commenting forum, forcing members of its community to post as their true selves by linking to—and signing in by way of—their Facebook accounts.
“Some places have developed just beautiful commenting communities, and the Huffington Post was one of them,” said Beaujon. “We saw a lot of dismay among members of that community after they made the change.”
The Guardian has been experimenting with a variety of approaches to foster community engagement. Regularly, it hosts open threads for comments, as was the case when renowned author Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away recently. Readers were asked to simply share their thoughts and memories about the man and his work. Other discussions take the form of Q&As with experts, contributors, and members of the editorial team, explained Ruth Spencer, community editor and editorial project lead at Guardian News & Media. Seven days of compelling Q&As, for example, followed Edward Snowden’s big reveal.
“We have a series called ‘A day’s work,’ for which we invite blue- and white-collar Americans who have interesting jobs—like a cattle farmer or mortician—to come and tell readers about their job. We’ll have the General Counsel of Google—and everyone in between, too” Spencer said.
“Instead of thinking about comments at the platform level, think about discussion as something that you can edit, that has a style and format of its own. Think of it like developing a feature,” Michel suggested.
Consistency matters, in moderation, Michel and Spencer concurred.
“We should be judged on how well we moderate according to our rules, and to the extent that have well-trained moderators who follow those rules and apply judgment is, frankly, the most important thing we can do Michel said.
“The Guardian’s assets are in the U.K., so our comment platform needs to abide by U.K. law. There are certain areas of law that are quite different between the U.K. and the U.S., for example. One is defamation. And when we’re covering an ongoing court case in the U.K., we must turn comments off. That sometimes causes confusion for American commenters who don’t understand why.”
To temper audience confusion—or worse, outrage—publishers need to clearly communicate their policies to readers, and guide them with instruction.
“After the Boston Marathon bombing, when we knew something was going on but didn’t have a lot of facts, we started a live blog—as we usually do around breaking news—and we opened up the comments,” Spencer recalled. “Very quickly, we were inundated with comments about why we opened up the comments. And the discussion became more about the comments being opened than about the event itself. Was it the right decision? Was it the wrong decision?
“So we hosted a comment with some instruction, and we asked people to tell us what they were seeing and to submit images. And it didn’t take long at all for the thread to transform. Readers began sharing images, replying to each other, providing us with Tweets and anecdotes and local news coverage. The discussion became very interesting to follow. And we did the same thing when there was an explosion in Waco, Texas. We asked for people with relevant expertise to come forward and offer some explanation and interpretation of what was going on.”
Beyond publishing rules of engagement and policing sites for adherence, other newspaper publishers are also getting creative with form, function, and context. Take, for example, the New York Times’ coverage of Pope Francis’ election. “For an event like that, we’ll get hundreds and hundreds of comments,” Koren said. “And in a long stream of them, you may find some that are substantial and some that are not. So what we decided to do was invite the readers to submit a little bit of data about themselves in order to contextualize that conversation, and make it a little bit richer.
“We asked people if they were Catholic or not, and whether they were surprised by the nomination and election. We were able to offer some filters, so they could identify the readers from Latin America, who had slightly different context than readers from Europe. … It made a long thread of comments a little bit more manageable, and gave it some context.”
Koren also said that hosting Q&As with reporters and editors is a creative way to engage readers in conversation that’s more meaningful than simple comment threads. “The structure of it is as important as the fact that you’re allowing comments.”
“The places that have successful comments—generally, but not always—have people assigned to moderate them, and that’s a position that not a lot of newsrooms can afford,” Beaujon said.
Frankly, it’s tough to valuate the resources newspaper need to allocate to online commenting, because it’s equally as difficult to predict content’s traction.
“When Edward Snowden revealed himself on the site, that story had about 4 million page views and more than 1,000 comments in a pretty short period of time,” Michel recalled. “So that’s the kind of story that brings the moderation team out in full force.”
Bernie Oravec, publisher of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette, one of the oldest continually published community newspapers in the nation, remarked that the comment sections on his paper’s site are mostly self-policed by readers. There is no “moderation team.” With four editorial staff members granted online administrative control, they rely heavily on the community itself to report offenders who have crossed the line into incivility.
“We have a presence on Facebook and Twitter. We’re also involved in Pinterest and Vine, but most of our energy goes into our online newspaper,” Oravec said. “Generally, as a community newspaper, we believe we give the best platform to the community, and especially to our readers to be able to express views on what they think is important.”
Oravec also noted that letters to the editor have been a long-standing tradition for the newspaper—citing as many as 100 published during the course of a month—but online conversation with readers is supplemental and special.
“I do believe it’s imperative, especially for community newspapers, to allow not only letters to the editor, but also commenting on their online sites,” he said.
“You need to experiment,” Koren said We, as news organizations, should be conducting those experiments, having those conversations in different ways, and not just defaulting to open comment threads and free-for-alls.”
Koren is empathetic to smaller publications with limited resources, but suggested that they, too, think about the importance of dialog with readers.
“Even if you can only conduct one or two experiments a month—or every few months—that gleans from readers what they have to say about a particular topic that’s important to your community,” she said. “You’ll learn from it and gain readers’ trust in great numbers.”