Killing Website Comment Sections Wasn't The Brilliant Move Many Newsroom Leaders Assumed

from the muzzles-aren't-innovation dept

So for years we pointed out how the trend of news websites killing off their comment section (usually because they were too cheap or lazy to creatively manage them) was counterproductive. One, it killed off a lot of local, community value and engagement created within your own properties. Two, it outsourced anything vaguely resembling functional conversation with your community — and a lot of additional impressions and engagement — to Facebook. Despite the downsides everybody ran with the idea that comment sections were utterly irredeemable and unnecessary.

Turns out, much of the conventional wisdom driving those decisions wasn’t so grounded in fact. This Poynter piece does a really good job revisiting whether killing the comment section was a good idea ten years on. It’s true that negative comments in the comment section can tarnish a visitor’s perception of the quality of an outlet’s brand. But it’s also true that the discussions outsourced to Facebook continue to also do that, they’re just doing that over at Facebook. So many researchers argue that if you’re going to have a discussion, you’re probably better off having at locally at your site:

“Conversations on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram won?t stop. And the same research premise holds true ? negative comments on those platforms will have a negative impact on the outlet?s credibility. So is it better to at least keep one forum where the outlet has control and the potential to monetize commenters into subscribers? And how do we make that forum as good as it can possibly be?”

If you recall, when most news empires over the last decade announced they were killing their comment sections, it was usually accompanied with some form of gibberish about how the decision was made because they just really “valued conversation” or wanted to “build better relationships.” Sometimes newsroom managers would be slightly more candid in acknowledging they just didn’t give enough of a shit to try very hard, in part because they felt news comments were just wild, untamable beasts, outside of the laws of physics and man, and irredeemable at best.

But again, as it turns out, none of that was true.

One recent experiment worked collaboratively with 24 Gannett newsrooms giving them four options: to turn off comments, to keep existing commenting systems in place, to use Vox Media?s “Coral” commenting system, but to use Coral?s commenting system and only allow subscribers to comment. You’ll never guess what the study found:

“Turning off comments actually lowered the average time readers spent on the site, according to Stroud?s research.

And journalists, who have the most to lose from a harsh comment, didn?t have increased job satisfaction or feel differently about how the newsroom served the community when comments were eliminated.”

While yes, many readers are often incoherent trolls, many other readers actually (gasp!) know what they’re talking about, and their input and conversations can actually improve journalism. As is often evident here at Techdirt, sometimes the resulting conversation can correct something the author has gotten wrong, or give reporters insights into trends and ideas they’d never previously even considered. If modern news is actually a conversation, quality comments are a helpful extension of that conversation:

The Detroit Free Press? Delgado sees involving reporters more routinely in the process as a potential solution. Having the journalist in the space with commenters can create a conversation between the newsroom and the community. It?s beneficial not just to readers, but to the reporters themselves.

?I know when I moderate comments, I?m a smarter, better journalist,? Delgado said. ?I know what people are talking about, and you can start to see a lot of the ideas and theories that are resonating.”

The problem wasn’t so much the comment section, it was poor managers running news organizations in a country that doesn’t properly fund journalism. And the study above does show that if you’re not going to run a comment section well, you’re better off not trying. But at the same time, a lot of these organizations did have the resources to do a better job at managing on-site community, it was just easier and cheaper to pretend comment sections were some irredeemable, malicious force we were all better off without to justify their corner cutting. That was always a narrow oversimplification.

The untapped irony is that many of these same major outlets that outsourced all discourse to Facebook over the last five to ten years, now complain incessantly about how Facebook has too much power over discourse, ad markets, and everything else. It’s pretty rare you’ll see anybody acknowledge that the decision to muzzle local communities and outsource all discourse to Facebook helped create at least some of the problems they’re now complaining about.

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Comments on “Killing Website Comment Sections Wasn't The Brilliant Move Many Newsroom Leaders Assumed”

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Samuel Abram (profile) says:

This is what they wanted.

The untapped irony is that many of these same major outlets that outsourced all discourse to Facebook over the last five to ten years, now complain incessantly about how Facebook has too much power over discourse, ad markets, and everything else.

Pretty much this. It’s utterly ridiculous and predictable that the same outlets outsourcing their comments to facebook are now having beef with facebook that it has too much power. While some of that is indeed justified, they should look in the mirror as to why that’s the case.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

A major problem I pointed out when they started doing this has come true. There’s a disconnect between the news site and the comments on another site. They get lost or there was never a connection to begin with, just a Facebook link to post your own thread on your own feed. And now articles move or get deleted and the comments are orphaned and the links back don’t work. They’re making discussion a waste of effort which for many people makes the articles themselves a waste of effort to read.

Anonymous Coward says:

I subscribed to my city’s newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, for a while. Its comment section was rife with the same handful of trolls spewing false info and barely-disguised racism and misogyny, and never getting banned or punished for it. I remember any time Lina Hidalgo (the judge of Harris County who took as many forward-thinking steps as she could with regards to the pandemic) was the topic of an article, people would be so utterly vile. If their comments were particularly horrid, the comment would get deleted, but that was it. There was no robust debate or contributing of information that added to the news stories. Just trolls posting the same garbage, other people swooping in to correct them, over and over. Earlier this year I unsubscribed and gave my reasoning as the fact that they weren’t treating the trolls, out-and-out bigots, and assholes as a serious issue.

Turning off comments actually lowered the average time readers spent on the site, according to Stroud’s research.

I’d like to know what readers were spending their time doing on the site. Quantitative is nice and all, but qualitative is more important. If people were spending a ton of time just commenting on one or a handful of stories, or reading others comments on those same stories rather than reading the rest of the paper, then was that time actually worth it? I know that people are allowed to spend their time on sites however they please, but were people gravitating toward articles and comments sections that were more heated and lively, or were they reading a wider swath of the newspaper?

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Its comment section was rife with the same handful of trolls spewing false info and barely-disguised racism and misogyny, and never getting banned or punished for it."

My experience has been the same wherever a site has allowed anonymous logins. If you needed to login via verification – disqus, Facebook, Google, etc – 99,99% of those trolls all went away as if by magic.

One of the recurring shitposters on this thread, our own Baghdad Bob/Out of the blue/Jhon smith/etc. is a typical example of this. He used to shit all over Torrentfreak way back when until they forced login through disqus only. After that he gave up on even trying after his first dozen attempts at sock-puppeting failed.

This forum would have become that same morass were it not for an active community persistently flagging troll comments into hidden status. Yet even then we occasionally get a troll or two happily spamming a thread asunder – like "tp", who’ll cheerfully keep posting stale gibberish in response to everyone daft enough to try to continue carrying a debate with him, well into 300 + comments.

To keep a forum a venue of debate rather than just a place where any passing asshole can squat and shit all over everyone else you need some form of entry barrier. An account. An already active and engaged community. Login credentials from somewhere.

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Picñe says:

Re: This is happened so trump would lose the election

The comments section was removed from most sight just as the Donald started campaigning towards his second term. It was obvious He was getting re-election. Nobody believed Joe Biden had a chance, but the election was rigged in advance and they had to make sure nobody could speak up. The comments had to go before the election. The comments on Facebook and wherever else don’t hold the same Wait as having them on the article does.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

An incredibly incorrect conclusion to take. The old adage "You don’t bite the hand that feeds you" definitely holds, and a state funded paper becomes a state-run paper.

A state-run paper does not act as the check and power-balance the media was supposed to become thanks to the first amendment.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Ah yes, the dystopian nations of checks notes France, Germany, multiple Scandinavian countries, and Canada which all to some degree fund news and journalism through government/taxes. Such terrible places to live, the lot of them.

/s

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Nice strawman, got any more?

And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that France believes its laws apply to the world ( https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20160324/17494034008/france-still-thinks-it-regulates-entire-internet-fines-google-not-making-right-to-be-forgotten-global.shtml )

Or Canada charges a "You must be a criminal" tax ( https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20080111/145553.shtml )

Or that Germany suppresses freedom of speech in an attempt to appease China ( https://www.voanews.com/a/china-attempts-to-block-cultural-events-in-germany-italy/6290403.html ).

Or the United States converting its own state-funded, but independent media services, into state-run US propaganda generators ( https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20210305/00041946372/trump-appointee-who-wanted-to-turn-voice-america-into-breitbart-spent-millions-taxpayer-dollars-investigating-his-own-staff.shtml ).

and while you’re reviewing all that, assume for a moment that Techdirt does receive US tax revenue for journalism and then ask yourself how many stories critical of the US Techdirt would have publish, if publishing meant risking that revenue.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

France trying to push a stupid law 5 years ago is quite the strawman. An article about a tax in Canada from over a decade ago regarding an iPod Tax and the article that you linked to talks about how it got struck down is quite the strawman. An issue in Germany where the article shows that China isn’t actually getting its way all the time and German politicians rightfully criticizing China (and you’re equating German universities to German newspapers) is quite the strawman. The fascist U.S. President that was arguably elected in part because our journalistic infrastructure is so fucked up and captured by corporate interests also doesn’t paint the best picture of your point, either.

Also who said anything about Techdirt receiving that money? Using tax revenue to fund local journalism for underserved cities and towns would be the most optimal thing, and is the primary thrust of most discussions about how to fund news & journalism.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

France trying to push a stupid law 5 years ago is quite the strawman.

Because recent history isn’t indicative of current behavior? Should I find an event from 1 year ago? six months? how old is too old?

An article about a tax in Canada from over a decade ago regarding an iPod Tax and the article that you linked to talks about how it got struck down is quite the strawman.

The iPod Tax was shot down. The original tax (and the one I referenced) is still Canadian law. I suggest reading the article a bit more closely next time.

An issue in Germany where the article shows that China isn’t actually getting its way all the time
An article that shows Germany caved to China’s demands; thereby, restricting free speech. The country where China did not get its way was Italy.

The fascist U.S. President that was arguably elected in part because our journalistic infrastructure is so fucked up and captured by corporate interests also doesn’t paint the best picture of your point, either.

How you rationalize the 2016 election results is irrelevant. The point stands that a government financed media network became a government financed propaganda machine. Put it simply, it happened before, and subsidizing the journalism industry with government funds all but guarantees it’ll happen again.

As an aside, if me citing French events from ~5 years ago to prove my point is a strawman, then your citing the 2016 elections would be so as well.

Also who said anything about Techdirt receiving that money?

The word assume was the keyword in that last paragraph.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
realitymonster says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

What in the WORLD does the Canadian blank media tax have to do with whether or not the CBC is a state funded, but not state run news organization?

The CBC and Radio Canada (the French side) both exist for perfectly good reasons, incidentally: Canada is a huge country and even today, it’s not guaranteed that anyone wants to build a news outlet for a remote location. In the past, it was the only way to get any news at all, but now the CBC may honestly represent the only local news source. It is a government service that serves the broader national good of having an educated and informed populace.

It works for the same reason the bureaucracy in any Western democracy works. Everything is at arm’s length; the media organization (theoretically) favours no particular government, in much the same way someone given a contract to pave a road (theoretically) favours no particular government.

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Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

So far you only come up with some anecdotes about stupid shit politicians do on occasion. For your original assertion to stand you must give us specific examples where the state is now running the news-papers they have earlier funded. Since the discussion has up to this point been about democratic countries we’ll keep the examples within that limitation, because it’s so easy to use North Korea, China and Russia as bad faith examples.

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

The incumbent governments in the UK and Australia at least are always bagging the state-funded but independently run public broadcasters, the BBC and ABC respectively, for being biased against the government.

This is irrespective of the party in power, conservative or liberal, whoever is in power bags the broadcasters to lesser or greater extents. I think this is because the incumbent government thinks that since the broadcaster receives government funding that they should be fawning over the government, rather than being independent and reporting on both the good and bad the government is doing.

Cowardly Lion says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Murdoch

Bashing the BBC is quite often down to Rupert Murdoch’s intense hatred of the BBC and his long-held view that it should be privatized. Murdoch exerts influence over British politicians of any flavour, lest he speak ill of them on his media platforms.

So, politicians try to curry favour by finger-wagging, and making threats of change (especially around funding). The difficulty is that the BBC is popular with the masses, both home and abroad. More popular in fact that Bassett’s Jelly Babies…

https://yougov.co.uk/topics/consumer/explore/brand/BBC

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"Nice strawman, got any more?"

He says, showing everyone what a genuine strawman is.

Fact is most european countries use tax money funneled into trusts separated from the political chain of command to fund independent news. Which has more often than not worked out quite well.

better by far than in the US where every "news" channel has an owner with a political angle.

"…and then ask yourself how many stories critical of the US Techdirt would have publish, if publishing meant risking that revenue."

You mean like the tax-funded BBC, well known for attacking the ruling party in its own government so mercilessly its sometimes made headlines in the private media?
Or the scandinavian equivalents?

"Or that Germany suppresses freedom of speech in an attempt to appease China…"

He says, quoting a case where China pressured a private publisher into cancelling a book and China-funded Confucius Institutes were shutting their doors.

"Or the United States converting its own state-funded, but independent media services, into state-run US propaganda generators…"

So in other words, a media service over which the state actually had the power to appoint staff?

I think I have to tell you something here; If you want to back an argument up, dropping links which prove the opposite of what you assert aren’t really the way to do it.

But thank you for showing us all some good examples of the Red Herring, False Equivalence, and Flawed Assumption tricks of troll rhetoric.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

On the one hand, he’s actually not said anything wrong this time. It should frankly not be anyone else’s responsibility besides the smaller newspapers’ that they made collective demands to their governments and managements, leading to the very organizations they bemoaned about cementing their dominant position.

On the other hand… fuck Koby.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that PBS is like Fox News. It’s just that my parent’s generation knew a time when PBS had actual high-quality journalism but since the right wing always works the refs, PBS was easily workable from bad-faith actors since it took public funding, and any left-wing efforts to work it in the same way lacked the same political power that the right wing had (really, they have the guns and the willingness to overthrow democratic elections but they didn’t do it until the mask came off in the Trump [mal]administration). Therefore, PBS always listened to right wingers but rarely the concerns of left-wingers.

A cursory googling gave me this piece of evidence (a left-wing source, but it proves that anti-PBS sentiment exists on the left): https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/why-are-public-broadcasters-parroting-conservative-talking-points/

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

There’s plenty of countries that aren’t actually represented by their government, and also populations of a country who don’t value journalism sufficiently to defer from their government’s influence.

If a population prefers to fund propaganda or shallow populism instead of journalism, that’s not related to the government, although it might be reflected in the results.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"What does this mean? It sounds like you’re saying that news outlets deserve government funding."

Most countries do, to some extent. There are standards in Europe at least on how tax money is funneled into independent trusts nominally removed from direct government control and used to subsidize a pseudo-NGO working as a sort of national news agency.

The US, as far as I know, has nothing similar. C-SPAN comes close in end result but functions entirely through the private sector – one of the very rare NGO’s to persistently do so without corruption.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Discuss It (profile) says:

Trolls on comments

I’ve suspected for quite some time that some outlets encourage or outright hire trolls to post to increase engagement. Where I suspect this most are Facebook and You Tube. Not the company, but the channel operator.

So much so I’m looking at using Grease Monkey to write a script to either drop those commenters or hide their "contribution". Being an old lag at email, I’d think about making that a global block list. Some defined "negative number of reports" and on the global block ya go. And, yes, I do see philosophical and technical issues with that. That’s why I said I’d think about it. A lot.

ECA (profile) says:

Knowledge is shared

And Stupidity stands out.

From the comment is the idea of TROLLS. to have comment section full of them and no concept of opinion or facts isnt a great thing.
Journalists dont know everything, and if you Try yo print every side of a situation in a news paper means you are going to write a book, explaining How this did that to create something and lead to the incident.
Journalists May not know the inside story of what Really created an incident. And a basic opinion ISNT NEWS. And the comments Might lead a journalist to Others and their insight into WHAT really happened.

There are few ways to fight trolls. They come in a variety of personal statements. As noted, Racism, and bias tend to cover up ignorance and mis-understanding.

realitymonster (profile) says:

Re:

What in the WORLD does the Canadian blank media tax have to do with whether or not the CBC is a state funded, but not state run news organization?

The CBC and Radio Canada (the French side) both exist for perfectly good reasons, incidentally: Canada is a huge country and even today, it’s not guaranteed that anyone wants to build a news outlet for a remote location. In the past, it was the only way to get any news at all, but now the CBC may honestly represent the only local news source. It is a government service that serves the broader national good of having an educated and informed populace.

It works for the same reason the bureaucracy in any Western democracy works. Everything is at arm’s length; the media organization (theoretically) favours no particular government, in much the same way someone given a contract to pave a road (theoretically) favours no particular government.

Micky Nozawa (profile) says:

Closed because of a single comment

About 20 years ago I managed the web site at a local TV station in the UK. Comments and forums were extremely popular with viewers and ex-pats looking for news from home.

Senior management suddenly closed the comments and forums because they were afraid that a single, five word, comment would so affect a news presenter’s self-esteem that he might self harm or even suicide.

The offending comment?
“[presenter name] has bizarre eyebrows.”

Micky Nozawa says:

Closed because of a single comment

About 20 years ago I managed the web site at a local TV station in the UK. Comments and forums were extremely popular with viewers and ex-pats looking for news from home.

Senior management suddenly closed the comments and forums because they were afraid that a single, five word, comment would so affect a news presenter’s self-esteem that he might self harm or even suicide.

The offending comment?
“[presenter name] has bizarre eyebrows.”

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Of course it did. Thanks to Facebook, everyone knows that anger and outrage increase engagement, which equates to more time spent."

That’s one conclusion. The other is that without comments, there’s literally far less content to read. Making things subscriber-only rejects any kind of interaction with casual readers who don’t normally visit the page, and so gives them less reason to stick around after they’re read the initial article.

"The question is, did comments add more value than they subtracted?"

As with most things, the actual value of the comments will vary depending on the viewer. Over the years, I’ve learned a fair amount of things about not only the content of a news story but fundamental concepts about what the stories mean by watching people tear down trolls with factual rebuttals. This seems to be what the journalist quoted is saying – engaging with the the negative comments forced him to take more care and do more research in order to correctly counter them. Also, not every story attracts trolls and idiots, most stories will ave reasonable levels of conversation in them.

How you engage with these things depends on the reader, but engagement is not only due purely to anger and outrage.

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Fredrick Carter (user link) says:

Karl, this was a fascinating read! I believe that comment sections in online newspapers are vital for people to express their opinions on any subject. However, it is as troubling to see trolls take advantage of the opportunity to spew cruel comments and target other commentators. I believe the simplest solution is to restrict comments to registered people who may be sued for being abusive or threatening to others.

Patrick Charles Trombly says:

Comments Section

The Left wing media outlets eliminated the comments section because they couldn’t handle the truth. People easily ripped the left wing narrative to shreds – ruthlessly pointing out moving goalposts, inconsistencies and inaccuracies. And the Leftists had no fact-based counter-argument. All they had was name-calling and reporting “community standards violations” (which just means “waah, they’re beating me in an argument”). And readers didn’t buy it. Readers were too smart to reject fact and logic in favor of “racist, transphobic, radical Russian bot troll.”

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