Reader comments on news sites: We want to hear what your publication does
One of Nieman Lab’s most-read stories ever is “What happened after 7 news sites got rid of reader comments,” published in 2015. In that piece, Justin Ellis looked at sites that had made the decision — still somewhat unusual at the time — to turn off comments on their sites.
“We believe that social media is the new arena for commenting, replacing the old onsite approach that dates back many years,” Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, then of Recode, wrote back then.
Seven years later, just as Twitter isn’t really a substitute for a public editor, social media has proven to be pretty much the opposite of a cure-all for toxic comment sections. In a recent panel, the editors of metro newspapers around the country discussed their thoughts on reader comments and their strategies for handling them.
They haven’t all taken the same path.
“It’s something we’re all grappling with,” said Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory, but “there is an expectation that people should have a say.” The Globe is in the process of hiring a community engagement editor to strategically approach comment sections; for now, the paper employs a moderating company that goes through comments, deleting some and blocking users when necessary. “We have a lot of smart commenters, people who really know what they’re talking about, and we take what they say very seriously,” McGrory said. “That is mixed in with a lot of people who are there to vent in ways that are not reflective of larger life.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer turned off reader comments on nearly all of its stories in February 2021. “It was not an easy call. Engagement and the time that people spend on the site is an important digital metric, and if people are allowed to comment, they’re obviously on the site longer,” said Gabriel Escobar, editor and VP of the Inquirer. But “in the end, it was so toxic — toxic in the general nature of the comments, but [also] toxic when it came to personalized attacks on the journalists.” Moderating tools “didn’t screen out the most vile comments,” he said. “In the end, we essentially cut them, and I don’t think any of us regret it.”
The Seattle Times turns off comments on “stories that are of a sensitive nature,” said Michelle Matassa Flores, executive editor of The Seattle Times. “People can’t behave on any story that has to do with race.” Comments are turned off on stories about race, immigration, and crime, for instance. What works better, Flores said, is prompting — soliciting comments ahead of a story’s publication and essentially pre-moderating them. That worked well, for instance, with a recent package of stories analyzing the Seattle Times’ coverage of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II. “We did a prompt, moderated those ahead of time, and then posted the thoughtful responses — which promotes more thoughtful responses, and it kind of feeds off itself in that way,” she said.
Similarly, in the instance of a package on Minneapolis’s juvenile justice system, the Minneapolis Star Tribune solicited reader feedback and stories ahead of time, said Suki Dardarian, the paper’s editor. “This is a story you want feedback on, but you know it will be too hard to moderate that. So we did an invitation for people to share your thoughts, and then we’re getting back to them and figuring out a way to incorporate their thoughts and feelings into our coverage.”
We’re looking to do a story on the present and future of comment sections on news sites, so consider this our prompt for feedback: What is your news outlet doing with comments these days?
If you launched recently, how’d you decide whether to have a comments section or not?
If your site’s been around for longer, have you faced the decision of whether to keep comments on, turn them off, or something in between? And if so, where did you come down?
Let us know by filling out this form, and we may get back in touch for more information.
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