Why commenting on news sites still stinks: Further notes on the commenting survey results

The most striking conclusion I’ve come to based on the results of the commenting survey that 49 online news folks answered over the last week or two was this:

Commenting on news stories is still broken.  Busted.  Stinks.  It’s a mudpit.  Still.

I’ve been writing about how to improve commenting on news sites for a couple years now, but all my ideas — and really, most of the systems I’m borrowing ideas from — are technological solutions.

And that’s fine, and good, and necessary, but the feeling I’m walking away from these survey results with is the feeling that no matter what technical solution a news organization implements, there are still a set of very human problems to be solved in the newsroom if you really want to raise the quality of the comment threads on your stories.

In short, you can let readers “report as offensive” and ask questions and e-mail to a friend and vote comments up and down and recommend comments all day long, but if there’s not a journalist managing the community — participating in threads, asking and answering questions, and generally continuing the conversation — your comment threads will stay a mudpit, all technology, identity, and registration aside.

So here are a few ideas.  Thinking out loud here, so please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments here.

  • Take an hour or two one day, Web producer or online editor, and make sure every reporter and editor in the newsroom is registered (if necessary) for your site’s commenting system.  Send them their login and password information for it, and follow up at their desk — get them to log in while you stand there if you can.
  • Don’t make one staffer responsible for comment monitoring and moderation every day — rotate throughout the week.  Comment moderation can be a drag, frankly, and it’s easy to get sick of dealing with abuse reports and reader complaints.   Let a few people take a turn, and invite editors and reporters to join in, even if it’s just for a few hours at a time.
  • Take the crazy Air Force flowchart seriously!  Make your own and print it out for comment moderators as a basic guide to which commenters to engage in conversation and when to let trolls have their say.
  • If you’re an online editor or Web producer who sends out a daily or weekly e-mail to the newsroom with a list of popular stories or recommended reading, add a comment of the day to that message, or tack it up on the bulletin board.

What else?  Again, we’re looking to work on the human (as in, your newsroom staff) issues, not the technological ones, for the moment, at least.

9 Replies to “Why commenting on news sites still stinks: Further notes on the commenting survey results”

  1. I think another way to get newsrooms to engge with the comments is to recognize that there are stories there … tips to new stories, bits of useful context etc.

    Somebody in leadership in the newsroom should be demonstrating how these can be used and encouraging reporters to do the same thing.

    There are even complete stories in the comments. At one paper where I worked, a local lawyer was outed on a local blog for sock puppetry in attacking local judges (as part of a larger judicial appointment controversy). I followed up on the IP information and it turned out she had multiple accounts with us and even commented on a letter to the editor written by her secretary that just happened to echo points she had made under assumed names elsewhere raising the question of whether the letter to the editor was fake. What a lovely cesspool.

  2. Comments will never ever EVER be perfect. We’ve added registration to a few of our blogs that had gotten out of control, and comments dropped by like 500 percent. Not sure if that’s exactly what we wanted, but as time passes the number is rising slowly and the posts are a little cleaner. Still about 70 percent good, 30 percent acceptable mud, but you still only taste the mud.

  3. I think news article comments are going to continue to suck until a few fairly significant things change in the practice of journalism online. This is a systemic problem. Adhering to best practices can only mildly optimize a sucky experience.

    Truly good comments require a stable community. That is why it is near-impossible to form a stable community in the comments on ephemeral news articles. That’s also why it’s easy to form communities around bloggers. Bloggers tend to have persistent topical focuses, and they feature a compelling authority figure to set the tone and discourage a few voices from taking over.

    You can form communities around general-interest links; just look at MetaFilter or Digg. But the best way to do that is by scaling the community as it grows – starting with a community leader and small traffic, and building up to a network of community leaders by the time you have Digg-level traffic.

    I think only two things will help us find how you can create great communities around the news: 1) a shift away from individual stories and towards stable topics, where comments are integrated on every topic as a sort of message board; 2) a commitment to investing the personnel and time required up front to form a good community.

  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    @Dave – Absolutely – If we can get across to reporters and editors that comments can have reporting value, we’ve scored a big win.

    @John – Perfection can’t be the goal, but the number of respondents in that little survey who said their news story comments sucked was just too big to ignore. We certainly can’t control reader’s behavior, but we can get into those threads and point conversations in the right direction, or at least we can try, right?

    @Kat – Sounds like a few hundred newsrooms I know. 🙂 Well, the “rotate” idea takes a hit there, and if you have an active community, it’s going to be more difficult to keep it on track, but I’ve gotta recommend just making it a part of your daily routine just like everything else you’re doing online. You’ll get as much out of it as you put into it.

    @Matt – So why isn’t the reporter or an editor in the comment threads on news stories seen as an authority figure? Do systems that ID the admin in the thread (like the different color background on this very comment) help?

  5. Make individual journalists responsible for the comments on THEIR stories. This way there is a guiding voice that is familiar with what’s being discussed.

  6. Megan makes a good point. Unless journalists have some sense of responsibility for discussions around their own work, they won’t properly engage with the audience.

  7. I’m glad you’re thinking about this! I gave this some thought a while back and I agree that’s it’s mostly a human problem with human solutions. Actually, not so much a problem, but the need for the realization to be that comments isn’t just as simple as letting people respond: it’s an act of community building.

    I wrote out my full thoughts on the subject last year, you can check out the blog post here:

    Comments: Taking a closer look at identity and filtering in online journalism

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