The New York Times Tries Something Novel: Listening To And Interacting With Readers

from the treating-humans-like-humans dept

For years the whine-du-jour in online media circles has been about the poor old news comment section. Time and time again we’ve been told that in the modern era, the news comment section is an untamable and unredeemable beast: a troll-factory hellscape that is simply too hostile and dangerous to be manageable. So instead of trying to fix the problem, outlets have prevented users from commenting at all. Usually these announcements arrive with some disingenuous prattle about how the outlet in question really “values conversation” and was just trying to “build a stronger community” by muzzling on-site discourse.

The real reason killing the news comment section is so popular is less glamorous. Most websites simply are too lazy or cheap to try and explore solutions, since “quality discourse” isn’t something site bean counters can clearly monetize. Many other editors simply don’t like having an area where plebeians can so clearly and obviously outline errors made during reporting. Many of these editors believe we can and should return the bi-directional internet back to the “letter to the editor era,” when publishers got to choose which member of the public was heard.

So while “who cares about on site community” becomes the trend, the New York Times is trying something particularly blasphemous in 2018: actually interacting with their readership. Several columnists have taken to the website’s still-operating comment section as part of what columnist Frank Bruni says is part of a newfound effort at the paper to actually talk with readers from “time to time”:

“I’m the column’s author, hereby beginning a Times-encouraged experiment of joining the Comments thread from time to time. Thank you, PaulB67, and thank you, all, for reading us and for engaging in this conversation.”


“Hi. I’m the column’s author; with The Times’s encouragement, we writers on staff are beginning on occasion to join the Comments threads on the stories we publish.”

Of course actually interacting with your readership is well out of line with fashion trends at the moment, and it’s unclear how dramatic the Times’ effort will be or if it will stick around. Most websites would rather outsource all public discourse to Facebook where it becomes SOP. But it runs in line with comments that former Times editor Liz Spayd began making a few years ago, namely that treating your audience like human beings instead of an irredeemable pile of jackasses might actually help foster better public discourse:

“Clearly, there is more to understanding readers than to literally have editors interact with them each day. Nonetheless, the small number of consumer-facing staffers is indicative of the bigger problem: a newsroom too distant from the people it serves…

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?”

That this is a novel idea tells you just far off trail we’ve wandered.

Spayd has since departed the Times to go work as a Facebook public image consultant, but apparently her lofty goal of actually giving a damn (TM) appears to have stuck around at the Times, for now. Again, actually interacting and caring about your audience is important, but recent evidence also suggests it doesn’t really take much effort to craft tools that can have an immediate, positive impact on the quality of public discourse in comment sections. Yes, the news section is filled with a lot of bile and buffoonery, but the idea that this means all on-site news readers should be muzzled continues to be a popular, but flimsy, narrative.

Filed Under: ,
Companies: new york times

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “The New York Times Tries Something Novel: Listening To And Interacting With Readers”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

How long will it last?

That the NY Times is changing their minds about hearing from their readers seems like a move in the correct direction. Now let’s see how they go about handling those comments.

For sure, any interaction will be better than the Presidents views about his government Twitter account, or the Governor of Kentucky’s view about his government Facebook account where both could be charged with illegal censorship, if we could get any agency to care enough.

The NY Times won’t be doing anything illegal if they censor comments, but will certainly raise the hackles of any dissonant’s that have their comments cut. Look what happens here, and those comments are still view-able.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "Look what happens here" is fanboys PAY for hidden advantage!

You know, I hadn’t considered this cause of Techdirt’s unfairness to dissenters, but the alleged "voting system" here has actual CASH PAYMENTS influencing!

For those new, the more ardent fanboys "contribute" to the site and obtain "Insider" privileges: at least able to see / comment first, and get permanent "First" or "Last Word" links.

So it’s NO wonder that dissent here (NOT "dissonant" as you wrote) are the ONLY viewpoints / comments which are censored, I mean "hidden", while fanboys NEVER get comments hidden no matter how vile or off-topic!

Techdirt’s "voting system" is RIGGED with CASH PAYMENTS! (This’d be a key point in any law suit. Just sayin’.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: "Look what happens here" is fanboys PAY for hidden advantage!

Except none of what you just said is actually part of the "voting system".

Yes, you can get insider and do those things. But it doesn’t change the "voting system". Just because you can post a comment early or elevate a comment to be the first/last thing you see, does not mean you are likely to change someone’s opinion.

To put this in another way…

If you want to convince people, you need to have a high charisma stat. Otherwise you look crazy or troll-ish; possibly even just a plain jerk.

If you still wish to go on despite your low charisma, perhaps you should look at a certain XKCD.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: "Look what happens here" is fanboys PAY for hidden advantage!

Though dissonant was likely not the intended word (nor was it used correctly), it still could carry across a similar idea.

The word dissonant means that something is not in harmony. Given that dissent is basily multiple people/ideas that are not in agreement; they are not in harmony.

I.T. Guy says:

Re: Re: "Look what happens here" is fanboys PAY for hidden advantage!

I un-hide your comments just to flag them wiLLie.

“So it’s NO wonder that dissent here”
Dissent here is more than welcome here be it civilized.
Your childish rants are nothing of the sort.

So stop stomping your feet, holding your breath and move along little fellah.

Funny how every site you end up on is like the Civil War Reenactor site… YouTube.

Do you hate you too?

Jay says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I dunno…as a counter point I’ve had comments deleted and censored here before too. I couldn’t really tell why either. At least in my opinion, I’ve arrived to provide intelligent and well-thought out comments here, seldom as my comments may be. So, fwiw, I’ve seen some comments section tomfoolery on this site took. I actually visit this site less because of it, too…which proves the point of the author I suppose. shrug

Bruce C. says:

Re: How long will it last? It just might work

Maintaining a comment section is expensive, but most sites don’t muzzle the readers because they disagree. They muzzle the readers when the trolls have gone out of control and the commenters who actually have something to say have either given up, or spend more time responding to trolls than to the actual content on the site.

The Times’ technique has a chance of succeeding, at least with the misanthropic trolls who just want to sow chaos or who have lost touch with reality in their crusade against their particular bete noire. It won’t do anything against state-funded or PAC-funded trolls seeking to disrupt discourse as an objective in a larger strategic plan.

Anonymous Coward says:

Techdirt re-writers "engage" by using "ignorant motherfucker".

Here’s the unique Techdirt way of engaging as done by Timothy Geigner, aka "Dark Helmet", whom Masnick stated is Techdirt’s "comment enforcer":

"There are white people, and then there are ignorant motherfuckers like you…."

Note particularly that there’s NO context, NO ongoing discussion, just vile targeting of a person. That’s the standard at Techdirt, and yet MY comments get censored!

After six years or so not responding to complaints, Masnick called that a joke and stated [of Geigner] "He was not making that statement on his own behalf." From which I conclude was at Techdirt’s / Masnick’s direction, else how know that?

Yet again, Techdirt: clean up this cesspit you made before pretend can advise others.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Techdirt re-writers "engage" by using "ignorant motherfucker".

Dude it’s 2018 and you just linked to a post that trolled you in 2011. And a thread where you pretty much outright committed libel. Maybe if you’ve got something from the current year…that’s actually, oh, I dunno, relevant…

In conclusion: Your troll-fu is bad and you should feel bad.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

out_of_the_blue has spent the full extent of his time here fellating the law and authority, insulting anyone who disagrees with him, and used various pseudonyms to do so (which under his demands would have required him to be arrested under the CFAA, but meh). The hypocrisy is staggering.

Or out_of_the_blue could just hate it when due process is enforced.

ryuugami says:

Domino effect?

I wonder, how much does this have to do with recognizing the importance of engaging with readers, and how much with the recent… let’s call them, image problems… that Facebook and social media in general began to have?

With the general public becoming aware of some of the issues, "We should outsource our comments to Facebook" may have suddenly lost a lot of it’s appeal.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Domino effect?

I have to wonder about that, yeah.

To me, it seems like a no-brainer to encourage good on-site comments. Would you rather your readers read the story and be done with it, discussing it elsewhere – or come back again and again to the your website to see how others responded to it?

Rudolf (user link) says:

Re: Re: Domino effect?

The recommendation from marketers for small blogs is just to engage with your audience whether it’s on Twitter or blog comments.

The only reason NYTimes and other publishers/gatekeepers keep on surviving is due to past success rather than embracing the democratized internet (listen to me, invoking imagery of Web 2.0 and the mid to late 2000s when we were still optimistic about this whole internet thing).

Anonymous Coward says:

Removing comment sections is a way of making sure no one debunks any of the information posted (or adds other pertinent information to it, sometimes with an offsite link).

Basically those comment section-free sites want to be able to soapbox with nothing but (outside of the site) social media giving them bad PR. It’s really a black hole of hubris: I’d think the writers would want genuine criticism so their heads don’t explode with ego or arrogance.

There has never been a news website or newspaper that’s never made a single mistake; or had someone disagree with their presented facts or opinions.

SirWired (profile) says:

The NYT comments are VERY limited

Because of the same problems every other online news comment section had, the NYT cut back their commenting feature significantly a couple years ago. It used to be that every story had commenting ability, and the NYT heavily moderated it. (They rejected one of my comments once for having “damn” in it, but the moderator sent me a personal e-mail explaining why it was rejected, thanked me for my comment history on the site, and invited me to re-submit it, as he thought it was otherwise a fine comment. All that attention can’t come cheap.)

When that burden got to be too great, they chopped the ability to comment down to a few select stories (they maintain the heavy moderation, I guess because of the tone they want to set.)

I personally think that if a site chooses just cut comments entirely, that’s their choice. It might make me less-likely to access the site often, but moderation to keep things from degenerating into a horrible fracas is expensive. (Yes, there is low-hanging fruit to be plucked to take care of the worst of it, but that may not be enough, especially at a large lightning-rod publication like the NYT.)

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...