New York Times Public Editor Scolded For Suggesting Websites Should Treat News Commenters Like Actual Human Beings

from the flogged-in-the-public-square-for-caring dept

For some time now, the opinion du jour in “enlightened” media circles has been to treat the news comment section (aka the customers who visit your website daily and directly) as some kind of irredeemable leper colony. One that should be nuked from orbit before the infection spreads. As such, we’ve seen website after website proudly crow about how they’ve given up on allowing site comments because a handful of posters are obnoxious, hateful little shits and the social media age means more direct community interaction is passe.

These announcements usually come hand in hand with all manner of disingenuous platitudes from the editorial staff, like we killed comments because we wanted to “build relationships,” or we muzzled our entire user base because we just “really value conversation.” Usually, this is just code for websites that are too lazy and cheap to moderate, weed and cultivate their community garden, and find it convenient to argue that outsourcing discourse to the homogenized blather realm of Facebook is an improvement.

Since this trend began a few years back, you’ll occasionally see an editor stop and realize that these disregarded masses are, warts and all, the life blood of a community — and preventing them from publicly interacting on site is actually a step backwards. Case in point is new New York Times public editor Liz Spayd, who this week asked a bizarre and outlandish question: what if websites were to treat these people like actual human beings and the comment section as something worth saving? Says Spayd:

What The Times and most other newsrooms mostly do now is not so much listen to readers as watch and analyze them, like fish in a bowl. They view them in bulk, through statistics measuring how many millions of ?unique? users clicked on content last month, or watched a video, or came to the site multiple times, or arrived through Facebook.

What would prove more fruitful is for newsrooms to treat their audience like people with crucial information to convey ? preferences, habits and shifting ways of consuming information. What do they like about what we do and how we do it? What do they want done differently? What do they turn to other sites for?

This isn’t really complicated. Spayd refreshingly realizes that the rise of the comment troll is in many ways the fault of websites themselves. Writers and editors simply don’t want to cultivate real conversation, because it’s hard work and their current analytical tools can’t monetize discourse quality. Instead, websites have begun to approach the end user relationship like the owner of a prison colony who believes the entire sordid affair can only be improved by a good, industrialized delousing or the outsourcing to bigger, meaner prisons.

In reality studies have found that comment sections can be dramatically improved — simply by treating site visitors well and by having somebody at the website make a basic effort at fundamental human-to-human communication:

One surprisingly easy thing they found that brought civil, relevant comments: the presence of a recognized reporter wading into the comments.

Seventy different political posts were randomly either left to their own wild devices, engaged by an unidentified staffer from the station, or engaged by a prominent political reporter. When the reporter showed up, ?incivility decreased by 17 percent and people were 15 percent more likely to use evidence in their comments on the subject matter,? according to the study.

With the daily struggle to produce more and more content in a sea of more and more competitors, it’s simply easier to pretend that the comment section doesn’t matter.

But what’s being pushed as enlightened evolution by editors is just willful obliviousness driven by lazy thinkers, incapable of embracing anything that can’t be clearly, graphically monetized. It’s thinking built at media empires with the multi-million dollar backing of giant conglomerates, where actual human interaction is already more easily obscured by the daily shuffle of incessant bi-coastal conference calls. Since the comment section is perhaps the most valuable source of corrections, it’s also a wonderful way for such giant companies to avoid advertising that their writers may have made a mistake.

I’ve been at the heart of one smaller, community-driven website since 1999 ( and a writer here at Techdirt for several years, so it’s perhaps more obvious to me that scrappier upstarts don’t have the luxury of telling their entire community to piss off to Twitter if they want to leave public feedback.

Not too surprisingly, Spayd’s idea was received poorly by some in the news media who believe public interaction with readership on site is either beneath them or wholly irrelevant in the social media era. MIT Technology Review Editor Jason Pontin was quick to declare that Spayd’s comments reflected a “disastrous first outing” as the Times’ new public editor, going further to suggest that anybody who gives a damn about public comments has the “wrong priorities”:

Slate was also quick to deride Spayd’s outlandish treatise (which again, is to simply give a damn about your on-site community) as the “phony populism” and “willfully naive” rhetoric of a bygone era:

After writing that the paper is trying to move in the direction of more comments, she adds that the speed at which it has done so has been hindered by “other newsroom priorities.” I?m not sure what those other priorities are, but to spend your first column focusing on something like a comments section is another sign that Spayd?s priorities are bizarre and even?this will sting?out of touch.

Yes, how gauche. As we all know by now, you don’t build community by treating site visitors well, you build community by telling them all to fuck off to Facebook, where their infectious, intellectual detritus can be more easily ignored.

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Comments on “New York Times Public Editor Scolded For Suggesting Websites Should Treat News Commenters Like Actual Human Beings”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

About those priorities...

A disastrous first outing. Show me an editor who cares about readers, and that’s someone with the wrong priorities.

Fixed the typo for him.

Comments can make for a good way to get an understanding on how your readers think, what’s important to them and their thoughts on things. Saying that comments aren’t important is little different than saying that the readers aren’t important, and even though more than a few seem to think that, operating under the idea that they speak, the readers listen, and there’s no room for anything even remotely resembling a discussion because what possible value could the readers add I doubt many would be willing to honestly admit it, even if he came pretty close with his comment.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Its the silly metrics game.
We need to score things, so we make a chart and expect everything to fit it.

Who cares if a reader can add a unique insight to a story, we care more than we got more hits from Twitter than FB on this story.

Who cares if we glossed over some details readers want to know more about, we need to find a new way to get that full screen autoplaying ad running past the blockers.

Who cares if we were wrong, these peons are no one to challenge our version of the story even if its flawed.

I’ve seen the groans some people make when I show up in comments on stories, and many of them end up eating crow. While I can and do make flippant remarks, I often add things… you take the good you take the bad and there you have the facts of life….

Perhaps this is all born out of the insane idea that we should just accept what the media says without question.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Perhaps this is all born out of the insane idea that we should just accept what the media says without question.

Not so much ‘insane’ as ‘outdated’, as for many years that’s how it went to a good extent.

You bought a newspaper or you turned on the news and read/watched what was presented to you with no real way to interact beyond that, it was entirely a one-sided affair. With the internet however that’s no longer the case, now when the news screws something up or gets a detail wrong it’s trivially easy to call them out on it, on their own sites no less for those that haven’t gutted the comments section yet, and they are anything but happy about the change.

How dare those uneducated peons think that they have anything to add to the discussion, don’t they know the professionals do news for a living? If the readers disagree with something then clearly they are the ones in the wrong as the professionals don’t make mistakes, and everyone knows the only good reader is a silent one that accepts what they are presented with without question.

They enjoyed being the only ones able to speak for many a year, the only ones with a voice able to reach a large audience, and now that that’s no longer the case they’re throwing fits and lashing out, lying all the while about how much they value their readers/viewers and what they bring to the table even as they do their best to kick any reader contribution to the discussion out the door.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

In all fairness, back in the ‘print’ era there was such a thing as people writing letters to the editor. Some papers published a few or those letters, and sometimes those printed letters to the editor excoriated the paper. What is not known is how many letters to the editor were round filed, or what they said. Sort of like deleting comments they don’t like now.

aidian says:

Re: Re: media hating on comments

How dare those uneducated peons think that they have anything to add to the discussion, don’t they know the professionals do news for a living? If the readers disagree with something then clearly they are the ones in the wrong as the professionals don’t make mistakes, and everyone knows the only good reader is a silent one that accepts what they are presented with without question.

Except no one in any of the news organizations I’ve worked at in the last 15 years has this attitude. Everyone has pretty much bought into at least the concept of news as a conversation, increased audience participation, etc. The question is how to best accomplish that (and I think well run, lightly moderated comments sections are a good part of doing that.)

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: media hating on comments

Given there have been more than a few sites that have gutted or ‘outsourced’ their comment sections(followed by adding insult to injury by lying and claiming that they did so because they value reader input), which it may be true that those you are around with don’t display that mindset it very much is out there.

Ryunosuke (profile) says:

the problem is mindset.

Online newspapers, NYT, etc. and online news channels (Fox, MSNBC, etc.) are acting as such, Newspapers, and to my knowledge, Newspapers never had a … public comment section, it’s all about the next headline. Sites like TD, are more like… online magazines, in my opinion

Let me ask this to TD readers, How often do you go to “news” sites, Fox, etc. on a regular basis, as opposed to going to said sites via links from external sources (reddit, twitter, etc.)

Now how often do you come to TechDirt to see what is going on. I mean, How often do we come to TD regardless of external linking?

TRX (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Major newspaper or TV news sites?


Even with fast broadband, they fill a 28″ monitor with animated ads, autoplay movies, and other visual spam, taking interminable times to load. Then there’s the “story”, about the size of a playing card, broken into a dozen pages, each click ramming more spam down the wire.

There’s no news story worth dealing with that.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Newspapers have always had a public comment section, usually called “Letters to the Editor”.

The real difference between sites like Techdirt and news outlets is that Techdirt is not a news outlet — it is a commentary site. So a more valid comparison is between a newspaper’s Editorial section (where public comments are printed) and Techdirt.

Scote (profile) says:

I visit sites with a community. It’s important to me. And Techdirt’s comment culture is good (even with the bizarre Mike-hating ACs out there). And while I’m encourage that the stats show a positive effect of a known reporter participating in the comments, as Mike often does, I’m disapointed by the numbers: “incivility decreased by 17 percent and people were 15 percent more likely to use evidence in their comments”

17 and 15%? That still leaves a lot of incivility and evidence free argument :-0

Still, watching many sites retreat from interacting with their own audience has been a giant step backwards for on-line media, turning them back into dinosaurs of the print age.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Re:

watching many sites retreat from interacting with their own audience has been a giant step backwards for on-line media

It is a giant step forward from their perspective. No more pesky kids, coming in and destroying their carefully crafted narratives. No more people calling them out for their bullshit, and out and out lies. No more people coming in and commenting on the inaccuracy of a given story. No more inconvenient “FACTS” showing up in the comments, making the authors and media company look totally clueless, or worse yet like utter and complete liars.

Again, from their perspective, it is a step forward.

bob says:

read the comments

Both Slate and Poltin sound like lazy idiots.

Can you imagine if places like MSNBC, FOX news, etc. forced their talking heads to actually wade through every comment section for every news report they did? I think the reporters would die from the sheer lack of logic some people present and then explode when the other half presents evidence that destroys the reporters argument.

Come to think of it that seems like a good idea for a reality tv show…

Kalean says:

In all fairness...

Pontin has a point, this is a disastrous first outing for Spayd; the way it undermines the current industry narrative is calamitous!

Can you imagine what would happen if the importance of comment sections starts being emphasized by other big news sites? People might start caring about the issue, and unforeseeable madness would surely follow.

Fall in line, Spayd; you’re making them look bad, and they know it.

Anonymous Coward says:

don't want to cultivate real conversation, because it's hard work

One of the reasons I REALLY like TD, is that it quote’s inline heavily from the subject matter. TD seems to rely more on accumulating a full volume of evidence that playing rhetorical games with gotcha quotes.

Of course this means that TD’s referenced material makes TD’s position more subject to reasoned argument, which is GREAT. It gives an impression that TD isn’t afraid to be wrong once in a while. That is what adults do.

The difference between engaging news and propaganda, is whether there is room to explore actual ideas around the root premise. IMHO it is great to see the fruit cakes (myself included) show up once in a while.

As a historical note, web forum growth rapidly accelerated with the death of the non-binary trees of Usenet. This was in part due to the purchase and demolition-by-neglect of (was it Deja News that became a major usenet gateway.

Usenet was architecturally limited in censorship capability. A lot of people argued otherwise, but the truth was that usenet content (early on) grew faster than the disks and servers that supported it. There was a LOT of truncating for technical faults, that was taken up as proof of censorship by the kook squads.

The truth is that the content to administrator ratio for usenet was just SOOOO much higher, (like 1 guy to gigs a day, instead of a few guys to megs a day) that it was technically impractical to implement institutional censoring.

IMHO it will swing back towards the technology being natively resistant to censorship. With Usenet it was a side effect of the architecture. Future forum mediums will be censorship resistant because they were DESIGNED to be. At which point the unholy trinity of cabal news can go and spew their drivel at the screaming tards on Facebook-O.L., and the rest of the netizens can enjoy the mayhem of truly free communication systems.

Until then I will keep up with TD. Great work guys!

plebeian (profile) says:

Comments reflect public opinion

While I’m a rare participant of comment sections, it does provide valuable insight into the opinions of people you don’t normally associate with. This is necessary in our ‘democracy’ to see the range of personal opinion.

I often read comment sections just to get a feel for the range of extremes on an issue, however unpleasant they may be. If debate class taught me anything, its that you can’t counter an argument you don’t understand. Well, that and debate meets are boring as hell.

Off topic – dslreports is where I send all my customers for an accurate speed test. Bufferbloat destroys VoIP! And more on topic, the forums of dslreports has informed me on many topics, despite the occasional trolls. 🙂

Steve Zissou (profile) says:

I’d just like to say that Tech Dirt’s comment section is partially why I went out and started writing at my own website.

In Tech Dirts comment section… I saw a community that did not need to agree with each other, I saw people coming together for fun, for discussion, for communal venting of frustrations… I found beauty in that and I wanted to help offer the same for a different group of people.

My writing has now helped hundreds of thousands of people through articles that apparently (judging by Slate’s and MIT’s foaming at the mouth arrogance) would be judged mundane and low quality. Yet people thank me in the comments section on my site. People appreciate that I take the time to reply to their comments. All I’ve tried to do is be helpful and insightful… and people have thanked me for that.

I feel that says a lot about what people really want from writers.
And I feel my story alone should justify to publications and their writers just how valuable the comments section can be to people.

You cannot measure the value of people’s comments, you can’t measure the value of a diverse community, you can’t measure anything but bland things like unique views… But just because you can’t measure that value… that doesn’t mean there is no value.

Justme says:

Wider problem. .

It think this ‘ a problem that affect’s a much wider range of interactions between people and organization’s, be they corporate or government.

The desire to quantify everything has resulted in those relationship’s being viewed completely in the abstract and increasingly to an inability to understand or respond to citizens/customers on a human level.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Wider problem. .

Yes, I think you’re right. I’ve been noticing this in an apparently unrelated area: Fitbits and such. People I know who have been using them for a long time seem to interpret their entire state of health by the statistic generated, rather than additional data to supplement subjective, but equally important information such as “am I feeling good?”.

This leads to sometimes hilarious and baffling decision-making.

In the end, any time we measure anything, we are making a sort of map. And all maps share one common characteristic: they clarify some things and obfuscate others.

Skeeter says:

News vs Engineering

You have GOT to understand, there is a major difference between News-Reporting and Social-Engineering. We haven’t had actual ‘news-reporting’ in years, possibly decades (and it was rather gaunt, even back then). We now have for the most-part, ‘free-contributors’, two on-staff ‘reporters’, and a front-page-editor who is paid far too-well, by a rather-hidden ‘directorship’ whose intentions are far from publicly stated.

The whole matter is quite summed-up by the old ‘shell-game’ concept. They want to talk ‘news’, as long as you’re looking at their page while they manipulate the ‘focus’ behind the table. Again, we are addressing the symptoms while the cause is blatantly ignored. It’s ‘free news’, thus, YOU are their product they are selling. Now, if it’s free, who’s REALLY financing it all, and WHY?

OldGeezer (profile) says:

My local newspaper recently switched to Facebook for comments. Removing anonymity stifles free speech. I was a frequent participant before they did this. I found that very few comments were what anyone would consider inappropriate. I disagreed with some of them and was free to express opposing views. Posters were also given the opportunity to flag remarks just like on this forum but they deleted the comments and did not give the option to click to view them. Most of the readers were posting legitimate comments and were quick to flag posts that were racist or vulgar so there was very little work for the paper to screen them. If I post on Facebook under my real name what is to stop some nut case from tracking me down and doing me physical harm for disagreeing with them?

OldGeezer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

A valid point. That still doesn’t address the problem that some nut case could seek revenge because you disagree with him. I use my real name on Facebook. Even though there are anti stalker laws in place it’s still not hard to track down just about anyone. What if my opinion opposes some policy of my employer? It would stifle my freedom of expression if I could not speak my opinion anonymously.

Bruce C. says:

Considering that printed newspapers had the original comments sections (they’re called letters to the editor), it seems like too many in new media have forgotten their history. The difficulties caused by the high volume of noise in internet comments are only an issue of magnitude. Editors in printed newspapers had to wade through pages of unprintable dreck to glean out the useful and informative letters – and then trim them to fit the printed page. There may not have been as much obscenity and scatology, but not much else has changed after all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Nice article, and I can totally relate. I post at two ‘news’ sites. This one and Slashdot. I put the news in quotes because of Slashdot, not Techdirt. The reason I post at these two is the community. Here because the quality of comments and and the discussion value is high. The same is generally true with Slashdot except for the sometimes minor anger flare ups. I also like that the author shows up quite often in discussion to either clarify or in some cases even admit to an error. You guys are on the right path here and it is appreciated.

I also always post as AC because I don’t want to create yet another account if I don’t have to.

John85851 (profile) says:

Is a site's purpose to deliver an audience to the ad company?

I’m interested in the logic behind the whole process:
Why are so many sites concerned more about unique visitors than an engaged community?
Is it so they can charge more for advertising?
Why? So they can make more money.
But then who pays more? The advertising company.
Why? So they can get their message or product in front of more people.
Why? To increase sales and make more money
Ah, yes, but does it?

At what point does this whole process collapse because people aren’t clicking on ads and they aren’t buying the advertised product? Oh, well, that’s okay- at least people are aware of the product. And how does that help if people aren’t buying the product and the company isn’t making money?

And what does this say about the news site? Are they making content to inform and entertain the readers? Or is entertainment a way of delivering more viewers to the advertisers? If this is the case, at what point does the news site become nothing but click-baity celebrity gossip because that’s what brings in the most viewers, which is what the advertisers want?

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