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.

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Comments on “Guardian, Salon Show How Keeping And Fixing News Comments Isn't Hard If You Give Half A Damn”

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53 Comments
Anonymoussays:

You know what? I don’t really care about those publications used in the example. Know why? Because I am not involved with them. I put no effort into putting eyeballs on their pages because I am not connected to them, as I am here at Techdirt.

I show up every day at Techdirt and I pretty much read everything printed here. Why? Because I am connected the site, I like what it produces, and I can participate in it’s commenting section. It is that last part that gets me to where I care. I care enough to read and I care enough to comment.

For years, publications were trying to get people to respond to them on the internet. To get connected to that site. Commenting was the vehicle that established that. Chunking it out the door means less eyeballs on the page and that means less income from advertisers.

Wonder what is going to happen next to them when they see their readership going elsewhere?

RDsays:

Re: Re:

“For years, publications were trying to get people to respond to them on the internet. To get connected to that site. “

That’s because the totality of the online media industry sees the internet as a broadcast medium, instead of what it actually is, a communications medium. They TELL you what you want and what they want you to hear, and you are supposed to be a good little consumer and just lap it up and come back asking for more. This is the way it has always been since the early 1900’s, and by God, that’s the way everything should be, ever.

ListYourSongsays:

Re: removing comments section

I almost couldn’t believe major media publication blogs would remove comments section. They are THAT frightened of free speech? I won’t read one-way blogs without comments sections. I was just telling my wife this afternoon; comments sections are where the REAL insights are on a topic. hmmmm I guess that explains Bloomberg

scotesays:

It really should be a no brainer that engaged readers visit the site more often, which means more pageviews and more ad impressions. What I don’t know is whether that leads to more clickthroughs, though, but that seems probable.

I definately visit sites with comments more, regardless of whether I personally comment. I like reading the conversation that the OP engenders. Of course, that only applies to sites with a well maintained comment system, such as Techdirt. YouTube, and other disposable comment systems, are a turn off.

DOlzsays:

Re: Re:

One of the things YouTube did with their comments that to this day bothers me is the change they made to the thumbs up/down counters. In the comment section it only shows how many thumbs up a comment gets, but always shows zero thumbs down. So when someone sets up multible account to puff up their (sometimes vile) comments it looks like everyone agrees with them.

summertimeguysays:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Disqus did the same thing, and other sites removed the thumbs down option all together, which is even worse. It really distorts opinions. The commenter only sees thumbs up and never sees how controversial their comment may be because most people wont take the time to respond with a comment.

I suspect it comes from the pampered view not to hurt anyone’s feelings, but it’s sold to us as a way to stimulate conversation (which is false).

Niallsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

It really, really pains me to say this, but one of the successes of the UK’s ‘Daily Fail’ (Daily Mail) as a website is that it has a robust commenting system. Not only does it allow upvotes and downvotes (without registration), but you can sort by newest/oldest, and most originally, by best-rated and worst-rated.

It says a lot to me that so many anti-social opinion pieces and ‘news’ providers fail to provide even simple commenting. Whether a site allows comments or not definitely influences my desire to stay on a site or not.

Additionally, forcing people via Facebook or whatever is also a problem because it’s one problem if you don’t want an account there – it’s another if you can’t actually get on (for instance, from work or somewhere with other restrictions).

Anonymoussays:

Why even bother TD...

So basically their solution to ‘resolving their issues’ with negative commenters is to eliminating all commenters.

If they’re having such a hard time with the negative input of their commenters then why, Techdirt, post an article promoting their website if everyone hates them?

Just let it die…without a whimper.

Ramon Creagersays:

Media don't trust their readers

That’s the bottom line. They whine about what a waste the comment section is, but in reality it could be a very interesting place if handled right. Requiring real names doesn’t work. Requiring one to have a google account (YouTube) CLEARLY doesn’t work. These are authoritarian solutions. What we need is to allow the community to collectively decide which comments are worthwhile, and which arent.

Allowing users to up or down-vote comments, a-la StackOverflow or Reddit, seems to work well. It’s a simple feature. So why isn’t it used more?

Mr. Oizosays:

Re: Re: Media don't trust their readers

because you create ‘camps’. Those people who might have made a valuable comment might be swamped with dislikes from the ‘other camp’. A good example of this is a religious argument. One side says: god doesn’t exist (all atheists upvote that comment). The other side finds that god exists (and they all upvote that comment). Neither actually adds anything except that the minority might withdraw since it will not be a debate anyway, more a vote on ‘who believes this shit’

ListYourSongsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Media don't trust their readers

Instead of thumbs up or down, Oizo, I think they could make more relevant voting names like “Advances the topic/Misses the point” or “Accurate/Not accurate” etc. That would take out the hive/pile on/group think dynamic that happens with traditional thumbs up/down Roman Empire era buttons.

JP Jonessays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Media don't trust their readers

This doesn’t really matter in my opinion. Either way, the person has been “heard” and thus feels like they made their point. In turn, this makes them feel more engaged with the subject.

Likewise, people who already have their mind made up aren’t really the target audience. In your example, if one person asserts “God is real!” and it’s followed by “God is fake!” neither are really adding anything to the discussion, and most people are either going to recognize this or ignore the one they don’t already agree with.

What news organizations should be looking for are the few people that identify flaws or add additional clarity. One of the reasons I love Techdirt is because the authors are really good at this; I’ve seen numerous times where articles are updated due to reader comments and others where the author clarifies or defends their position in the comments. This does a lot to add confidence that you’re getting a good, thoughtful analysis…after all, if everyone reading the article can’t find any issues, it’s reasonable to assume their journalism was at least not sloppy.

I honestly read Techdirt almost as much for the debates in the comments as the actual topics, and have learned almost as much from them. News should exist to inform, and, by proxy, educate people about topics the journalists believe are important for others to know. Which teaches someone more…just reading an article, or researching one to defend or attack it because you believe it’s correct (or someone else is incorrect)?

We’re already living in a world where ignorance on topics is no longer accepted. We have tons of information at our fingertips, and more and more people are having discussions where true and false are easily and instantly verifiable.

My wife went on a walk with a friend of hers the other day, and some brief political discussion came up, and Obama was mentioned. My wife’s friend said (I wish I were making this up) “Obama? I know that name, is he a singer?”

There’s no excuse for this level of ignorance anymore. Comments sections are a tool for people to sort through the validity of things, and as far as I’m concerned, an article without comments is an article that’s trying to distort the truth. Otherwise, why would they be worried about people proving them wrong?

Last thought…just because a comment is voted down (or here, reported) does not mean the comment wasn’t valuable. For example, when some idiot spouts their drivel about how “Mike loves pirates because X and Y” it generally ends up with twenty more people linking to sources that indicate that person is full of crap. That means that anyone reading the article who wasn’t sure can now verify it for themselves.

Something to think about.

Ole_Juulsays:

Old news media and old journalists

The old way of just presenting stories operated in a partial vacuum. Writers and publications were mostly isolated from all the nasty criticism that sometimes resulted. I think a modern writer needs to be much more socially mature. Interestingly, The Intercept just had an article which relates well here; The Petulant Entitlement Syndrome of Journalists.

I’m sure I’m not alone in valuing good insights among comments on good sites like Techdirt. Yes, it’s like real life and there’s silly and stupid things in between, but there’s often excellent value in there. Occasionally I learn more from something in the comments than I do from the story.

eavingsays:

The thing they are going to find is they will lose users having disabled comments. I dont speak up all that often here or on ArsTrchnica, but I read the comments on both site regularly because they frequently add to the material. Sites that disable comments lose that additional depth and instantly become less useful. Yes it gets rid of the Anon commentards as well but the one adds far more value than the other costs.

madasahattersays:

Re: Re:

I often read the comments on stories and find they often bring more depth and insight to the article.

What most sites w/o comments fail to realize is that a well written article can generate insightful remarks that the author did not have the time to address. The result is more time on the sight, page views per visit, and more value to the advertisers.

wereisjessicahydesays:

A good example is The MailOnline. Paul Dacre’s horrible but strangely addictive Conservative – borderline racist cum soft-porn exercise in hypocrisy. It’s the online paper everyone loves to hate but it’s also the most viewed online paper in the world. I think the main reason for this is the reality open comment policy. Some pieces are openly moderated (personally I think they all are..but) My point is.. the news sucks. It really is bad, but the genius behind The Daily Mail is the comment system. Very simple – they allow all comments (as long as it doesn’t go against the DM agenda at the time) and they just let the readers just fight it out – with a very clever “vote up – vote – down” It really is horrible, sometimes I feel ashamed to be a reader. But from an online business point of view, they really have it nailed down.

Anonymoussays:

Or, instead of believing the obviously bullshit excuses, just look at what they say when they lose their shit.
They dont like it when people have an opinion, they want to tell you what to believe and they want you to parrot their crap.
If they were really concerned about “bad comments” then they would dump all of their horrible writers and would stop pushing agendas.

art guerrillasays:

well, two bad examples in a number of ways...

  1. saloon sux, period… it is all but impossible to visit that site without adblock+/ghostery/etc… the HUGE list ghostery shows of crap they are loading is jaw-dropping… not only bad in a theoretical privacy sense, but it takes fucking FOREVER for pages to load…
    really, one of the shittiest designed and executed websites there is…
    frankly, the ONLY REASON i go to saloon, is to see what looney PC, uber-fembot bullshit they are selling that day, and shake my head and laugh at their idiocies…
    (been banned from commenting because i mock them mercilessly and they could not abide that…)
    libtards like them make me NOT want to be associated with liberal/progressive issues in any way; they disgust me, they have NO principles (otherwise they would repudiate the war kriminal obomber), AND they are anti-freedom in nearly every posture they take…
    2. and -of course- the ‘listening to their readers’ by metrics is bullshit: i go to a site, i may open 5-10 tabs of stories i might be interested in, or merely want to laugh at the lunacy in the comments, BUT, maybe put that in the background while i do some other tasks, and their ‘metrics’ are telling them i visited, opened a bunch of stories, and was on the web page for HOURS, when -in fact- i NEVER got back around to going back to read the stores, etc…
    its not turtles, its bullshit all the way down…
    3. MANY times, the comments -good or bad- are WAY more interesting and insightful than whatever article was the impetus for comments… one annoying aspect of that, is when/where there IS an interesting thread of comments, it gets shoved down the list until invisible (IN SPITE of still being active), and is smothered in the cradle…
art guerrillasays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: well, two bad examples in a number of ways...

yeah, i was banned from there too…
tried to email the site admins, but i am an unclean untouchable, so of course they don’t respond…
it is NEVER that i say doo-doo, or fuck you, or whatever, it is ALWAYS because i challenge their received ‘wisdom’, and would play the devil’s advocate on a lot of the bullshit they presented… they no likey opposition, ESPECIALLY if it is presented by ‘one of their own’…
banned from pandagon, banned from a bunch of other libtard sites, and a couple conservatard sites…

i think i’m up for most unpopular poster on the inertnet…
hee hee hee

art guerrillasays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: well, two bad examples in a number of ways...

…because they are cowards and control-freaks ? ? ?

…or were you being passively-aggressively snarky, yet not brave enough to simply come out with it ? ? ?

yeah, i’m going with the latter…
(of course, your ‘argument’ makes no sense, doesn’t actually address any points in the article, comments, or my post; but, day-am, wasn’t that some golden snark… snicker)

WHY my comment is ‘the reason why news site are getting rid of commenters.’ is not explicated; in all likelihood because you HAVE NO ‘REASON’ other than a dislike for me personally… thus, you prove you are both a widdle baby who has NO CONCEPT of what free speech entails, and a pantywaist wormtongue…

MasterKsays:

Talking Heads?

While I agree with most of what the article says I would argue that there is in fact room left for talking heads too.

Sometimes even well moderated comments can be reductive and lower the discourse of a story.

There needs to be a place in “News” for some well crafted stories that are allowed to stand on their own as well.

The trick is deciding on when and where to remove comments.

The gut instincts of most editors would be to disable comments for articles that would be hot button issues but that would be a mistake.

I think the article here does a disservice by thinking it is always right to have comments not matter what. Life is never so cut and dried.

I also see the irony of arguing about comments in the comments section…

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: Talking Heads?

I think the article here does a disservice by thinking it is always right to have comments not matter what.

You’re one of those permaban from the internet candidates.

Who are you to say people are not allowed to talk about a subject?
Only reason for not allowing would be due to lack of mods or topic is liable to create legal issues. Even then, that’s still a mods are gods decision. Mods are *******, always have been, always will be.

Anonymoussays:

one of those unwanted ones

managing editor for digital strategy 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.”

Hold the fucking bus!

The new Guardian design effects the comment section at the Guardian negatively. Only two comments on show by default. Comments now default ordered by newest making it appear dead.

JustSayin

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: one of those unwanted ones

If you’re willing to let the Guardian store a cookie on your system, you can still maintain your view settings for the Comments. Their choice for Defaults though, is indeed quite crap. Much like 90% of the rest of the new design.

I was going to write a FF add-on to skin the site with a “Guardian Classic” look, until I noticed how much garbage there was to wade through in their HTML. Also, I saw a squirrel and forgot about it.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re:

They don’t delete critical comments. They are quite strict about “abusive comments”, name calling and that sort of thing. They do delete complaining about moderation though.

If your comment was decent but you called a person a cunt in it… If flagged, it will get deleted.

It really isn’t that bad, considering the UK laws on being “grossly offensive”. In that case the moderation actually protects the users who may say something flippant.

Bruce Patinsays:

Forbidden comment topics

I try to use good language and grammar and be polite as is possible, but got banned from commenting on two sites, because I said that 9/11 was an inside job, and found that they did not tolerate any such allegation whatsoever, their policy being that any such conspiracy theory has been thoroughly debunked and consists of baseless accusations. I got banned from a Monsanto/Syngenta GMO site, because I gave evidence of their misdeeds that they couldn’t immediately counter.

What I am saying is that moderators can stifle discussion based on their own viewpoints, and not on whether or not it is civil discourse. On most sites, the level of discourse is kept up by the level of intelligence exhibited by the authors of the articles. If the article is trash, so are the comments. An example of reasonable moderation is the site Metabunk.org. I thoroughly disagree with some of the content posted by the owner, some of it exhibiting denial and unwarranted assumptions, but I have to respect his commitment to an honest discussion, because he obviously tolerates dissent from his opinion.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re:

I’ve found a few ways to get around that:

1. Reply to a comment that accepts the inaccuracy as fact, and correct the commenter, rather than the author.

2. Couch the correction as an ironic joke or a hypothetical, but link to a source that shows it to be valid.

3. Introduce the correction with “To paraphrase Pynchon,”

4. Never bring a First Amendment to a UK/EU Free Speech fight.

Salon can suck my comment section

Well im reporting back from 2018, and i dont know how, but salons comment section has only gotten shittier. I sincerely enjoy getting in arguments with delusional, self righteous salonophiles, but im fucking done. It really isnt worth the half an hour of reloading and retyping and copying and pasting it requires to leave a few sentences in response to chauncy devega’s freshest bowel movement. A commenter there today mentioned how americas current libertarian/anarchist consensus is like literally stealing the shirts off the backs of hoboes to give to rich people. I also have all sorts of issues with america’s current situation, but you cant describe it as “libertarian/anarchist” without knowing absolutely nothing about what those words mean. to be fair thats the same state you would have to be in to call gary johnson a libertarian, but his misuse of the term is not at all mitigated by more misuse.

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