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.