It has become a given within the mainstream news industry that readers should have a forum for unmoderated comments on all or most stories. In fact, for many news organizations, that’s their main, if not only, social media effort.
But is there value in sitewide commenting, for the organization or its readers?
When the establishment media industry got serious about the Web a few years ago, it looked, logically, at what works for others. When journalists looked at the prominent bloggers out there, they noticed something that was foreign to mainstream media: great interaction through commenting. People were leaving comments, sometimes dozens, on blog posts, and bloggers were responding to the readers, further driving the conversation. Often, these exchanges are much better than the original blog entry. There’s huge value in building a community of people who are interested enough in your material to interact with the author and each other through comments. So the mainstream media copied the format.
Here’s the problem, as I see it: it might not work to just copy the format.
People who are commenting on blogs are usually either heavily invested in the personality and writings of the blog’s author or they’re heavily invested in the topic. For example, someone who is visiting Engadget.com is likely to already be interested in gadgets, and therefore likely to post comments that add value to posts.
Blogs are usually specialized by topic, whether it’s politics or gadgets. You’re likely reading Media Bullseye because you’re an industry watcher, not just a casual passer-by. Meanwhile, on any given day, your metro daily Web site has dozens of topics on their home page, from world news to crime to immigration and tech. The only investment a good portion of people who click on these headlines have is that they were just interested enough to click the headline. To compound the lack of investment, most reporters are not known to the readers (to be fair, that’s changing with more reporters writing good, active blogs.)
Take those facts and throw in the relative anonymity in story-level commenting, and the often-weak tools for banning bad users, and the reader comments section can easily turn into a mud-slinging fest. People parachute into stories, and often bash the story, the people quoted in the story and each other. Stories about immigration usually devolve into racist posts. Even stories about completely unrelated topics, which happen to have someone with a Hispanic surname quoted in the story, can turn into fights about illegal immigration. If it’s not racism, then it’s a back-and-forth between two readers, with one inevitably calling the other “stupid” or whatever else they can sneak past the dirty-word filter. If there are good, useful comments out there, they often get drowned out by the negativity.
If you’re called by the local daily’s reporter asking to comment on a story, would you hesitate knowing you will be open to sniping from the peanut gallery?
Here are some of the possible solutions:
- Pull down reader commenting. I’m not sure this is the answer. It feels somehow wrong to go backward on giving readers a voice on our sites. You’d solve one problem while making another (closing yourself off to what could potentially be good discussion).
- Turn on moderation for all comments (before posted). The drawback is staff time (many places would have to either dedicate a full-time team to this or have their staff writers moderating comments on their own stories, which takes time away from reporting).
- Turn off comments on certain stories, but not others. In other words, for that immigration story, you might want to turn it off if you get no value, but turn it on for other stories. The drawback here is it’s a bit arbitrary, which might cause readers to be suspicious in your motives (are you trying to hide something?) It also won’t keep people from bashing each other elsewhere.
- Turn off comments on stories, but keep them on for staff blogs. A mainstream media blogger might be able to cultivate the type of community that non-mainstream bloggers gain. Also, people are more likely to be invested in that particular topic.
- Keep going as-is and just deal with some ugly comments and the lack of value.
It’s conventional wisdom that allowing sitewide comments is a good thing. I have managed a community of sitewide commenters, but I don’t know if I have the right answer yet. I’d love to hear your thoughts — just comment below 😉
Robert Quigley, who is the Internet editor for the Austin American-Statesman, is the co-author of the media blog http://oldmedianewtricks.com.