Guardian, Salon Show How Keeping And Fixing News Comments Isn't Hard If You Give Half A Damn
from the Walter-Cronkite-is-Dead dept
We’ve been talking a lot lately about how the new school of website design (with ReCode, Bloomberg, and Vox at the vanguard) has involved a misguided war on the traditional comment section. Websites are gleefully eliminating the primary engagement mechanism with their community and then adding insult to injury by pretending it’s because they really, really love “conversation.” Of course the truth is many sites just don’t want to pay moderators, don’t think their community offers any valuable insight, or don’t like how it “looks” when thirty people simultaneously tell their writers they’ve got story facts completely and painfully wrong.
Many sites justify the move by claiming comments sections are just so packed with pile that they’re beyond redemption, though studies show it doesn’t actually take much work to raise the discourse bar and reclaim your comment section from the troll jungle if you just give half a damn (as in, just simple community engagement can change comment tone dramatically). Case in point is Salon, which decided to repair its awful comment section by hiring a full time moderator, rewarding good community involvement, and treating commenters like actual human beings:
“You can measure engagement by raw number of comments or commenters. Using Google Analytics, Livefyre and Adobe, Salon looks at metrics like the number of replies they make as a share of overall comments, how frequently they share Salon articles, and how many pageviews they log per visit. (Users who log in, which is required if you want to comment, view seven pages per session on average, while non-registered users make it to only 1.7, according to Dooling.) After it identified these top commenters, Salon has solicited their feedback and invited them to lead discussions on posts and even help moderate threads.
…”Comments aren’t awful,” (said Salon community advisor Annemarie Dooling). “It’s just the way we position them. The whole idea is not to give up on debate.”
That news is now a conversation and a community is something traditional news outlets have struggled to understand, so it’s ironic that a major wave of websites proclaiming to be the next great iteration of media can’t seem to figure this out either. For example Verge co-founder Josh Topolsky, spearheading the freshly-redesigned Bloomberg, recently argued that disabling comments is ok because editors are still “listening” to reader feedback by watching analytics and the viewer response to wacky font changes. But that’s not the same as engagement or facilitating engagement. Similarly, Reuters and ReCode editors have tried to argue that Facebook and Twitter are good enough substitutes for comments — ignoring that outsourcing engagement to Facebook dulls and homogenizes your brand.
Former managing editor for digital strategy at the New York Times Aron Pilhofer, now at The Guardian, seems to understand this point:
“I feel very strongly that digital journalism needs to be a conversation with readers. This is one, if not the most important area of emphasis that traditional newsrooms are actually ignoring. You see site after site killing comments and moving away from community – that’s a monumental mistake. Any site that moves away from comments is a plus for sites like ours. Readers need and deserve a voice. They should be a core part of your journalism.”
Now — can you quantify and prove that money spent on community engagement will come back to you in clear equal measure as cold, hard cash? Of course not. But all the same, it’s not really a choice. We’re well beyond the Walter Cronkite era of journalism where a talking head speaks at the audience from a bully pulpit. We’re supposed to have realized by now that news really is a malleable, fluid, conversational organism. Under this new paradigm, reporters talk to (and correct) other reporters, blogs and websites talk to (and correct) other blogs and websites, and readers talk to (and correct) the writers and news outlets. You’re swimming against the current if your website design culminates in little more than a stylish uni-directional bullhorn.