When NPR announced last month that it would no longer feature comments from readers on its website, general rejoicing followed.
“Good riddance — and everybody else should do the same” was the tone of the response I saw on Twitter. USA Today columnist Rem Rieder, noting that other news organizations are moving away from comments as well, wrote, “Their disappearance is welcome.” And even NPR’s ombudswoman, Elizabeth Jensen, wrote that the move made sense to her, since such a small slice of the audience was participating.
I disagree. I find value in reader comments that can’t be adequately reproduced elsewhere. The argument that the conversation has migrated to Facebook and Twitter is flawed. Those are good places for discussion, but they are no substitute for having discussion take place where the story itself lives. I’m convinced that many smart readers with something to contribute will not follow a story onto social media to talk about it. News organizations should fix online comments rather than ditch them.
They need fixing, for sure. Too often, they are a place where trolls congregate, ready to offer their mean-spirited opinions. Too often, comments are racist, misogynistic, abusive and even libelous. They can also hurt newsgathering, sometimes criticizing reporters’ sources and making them more reluctant to talk to reporters next time.
In 2010, when I was the editor of the Buffalo News, managing editor Brian Connolly and I were disturbed enough by the gutter-bound, destructive comments to try an experiment. It was weird enough to get us some national attention, though that wasn’t our goal: We took away the anonymity of reader comments, requiring readers to use their names and tell us their locations, in much the same way as traditional letters to the editor.
It was inconvenient and time-consuming for us, and it reduced the number of comments substantially — but it made a world of difference in terms of civility. It’s amazing what happens when you have to put your name behind what you say. (The paper no longer does it that way, Connolly tells me, but has since experimented with a few different methods for readers to sign in.)
At the New York Times, where I was public editor until last spring, I found the reader comments an irreplaceable guide to my constituency. Of course, I also got response on Twitter and Facebook, and in an endless flow of emails, but commenters provided some of the most thoughtful feedback and discussion.
When the commentariat occasionally blasted me, I took it seriously and made course adjustments. And the appreciation expressed there softened that tough job. (The Times employs a dozen or so moderators who approve most comments before they are posted; that’s expensive and, for most news organizations, unrealistic.)
Here at The Post, I read comments on my columns and on many articles with interest. They can be pretty snarky as well as good-natured. When I wrote recently about how Donald Trump might be considering a new TV venture as a fallback should his presidential bid fail, there was, for example, this comment from one Humahumahummus1: “Oh honey, that was the end game all along. You need to be quicker than that. The rest of us could see it coming a mile away.” I’ve also been called every nickname for Margaret — and I’ve been called a few other choice names, too.
But I find the feedback worth having. It’s far different — certainly more varied — than response on Twitter, where many journalists congregate to talk shop, or on Facebook, which can become an echo chamber of like-minded friends reinforcing one another’s beliefs.
“These platforms are clearly providing us greater access to new audiences, but they’ve also made it easier than ever to insulate ourselves from ideas that differ from our own,” said Amanda Zamora, chief audience officer for the Texas Tribune, who spoke last week at a Poynter Institute confab on 10 years of participatory journalism.
She took it further: “By abandoning comments, news organizations are not only giving up an important role in shaping public discourse — they are giving up a key avenue toward having direct, sustainable relationships with their audiences.”
An organization called the Coral Project is working on it. Funded by the Knight Foundation and involving The Post, the Times and the tech developer Mozilla Foundation, it’s an effort to find the best ways for news organizations to engage with their audiences — on their own sites.
That includes a renewed commitment to reader comments, done right.
Through open-source tools, it hopes to give even the smallest newsrooms a way to filter and manage response from readers.
For example, a tool called Trust, through elegant and precise filtering, would “highlight the good as much as punish the bad,” allowing the best commenters to be identified and fostered, the project’s director, Andrew Losowsky, told Columbia Journalism Review.
It’s tempting to say that comments are more trouble than they’re worth.
But at a time when many news organizations are struggling to survive, improving comments is worthwhile work. They can help build community, right on our own sites, and finally get past the idea of readers as passive audiences who have to take what we dish out.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan