Disabling comments — a debate that cuts to the core of online news

I was in the office of the editor of a mid-sized daily newspaper several years ago when he confided in me about a new, frustrating task that was eating away at his time and morale. His website, a corporate-designed template, allowed anyone to comment anonymously. His staff had to moderate — or more accurately censor — this stream of communal wisdom and invective. This involved executive-level judgments often enough that the editor took the task mostly upon himself.

It was like a second job — in a newsroom where everyone who still had a job already had at least two jobs.

Fast-forward to the present. The editor left journalism after watching his newsroom undergo layoffs, consolidation, regionalization etc. The newspaper still moderates comments, but requires all commenters to log on with valid Facebook accounts, outsourcing the policing of its no-pseudonym policy to a 200 billion-dollar technology company. This hack was at best an interim solution for the newspaper industry that grew out of backlash against anonymous posting described in a 2010 New York Times story. Facebook is sophisticated at blocking spam and deleting offensive posts, but readers of a community newspaper may be understandably offended that their ability to join a local forum requires membership in and submission to the rules of a global technological behemoth.

Perennially, some news organization disables comments somewhere, setting off a trend-watch: Maybe comments are not just in the toilet but are about to be flushed down forever. One reason the debate over whether to enable comments keeps coming up is that it encompasses the essence of online news, the interactive culture that made “new media” new.

Think about what interactivity means in digital news, and you can’t get away from the requirement for audience participation. Digital news prophets such as Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen, noting that any barriers to publishing are gone for the average person, have promoted the “former audience” concept. All those people who no longer tune in to the evening news at an appointed hour, subscribe to newspapers, frequent a newsstand or even bookmark a homepage make up a formidable former audience that have to be targeted with — new buzzword — engagement strategies.

Disabling comments is the opposite of an engagement strategy since it can simply drive those with something to say to another platform. Some publishers are OK with that, as mic.com explained when it surrendered its social media discussions to Facebook and Twitter:

“The passionate discussions we see on our Facebook page — as well as the conversations our audience is having with our writers on Twitter — are more productive and organized than what tends to happen in our comments section.

“Rather than assigning team members to manage the comments on our site, we are investing our engineering and editorial resources in new products and storytelling formats that benefit our audience.”

Knowing whether this makes sense for your site requires a strategy. And it all starts with some basic questions every digital news operation already should have answered for itself:

· What percentage of our content do we want or expect to come from our users? (I’ll address how to measure this in a future post.)

· Can we make a platform for this ourselves or do we need outside technical help? (If you have a story of success or frustration with this, please share in by responding.)

· Will it be something off the shelf, custom designed in house or by a vendor?

· How can social media help make this work better for us?

The news industry can and will develop more technologically advanced ways to screen comments. Filtering software can be customized to reflect local standards and give precedence to locally trusted commenters. Mozilla, the software developer known for its Firefox browser, is engaged in an initiative backed by major newspapers and the Knight Foundation.

In the meantime, sites should use comments as a playground for experimentation as much as time allows. The space for composing a comment can be highlighted or semi-hidden, open to all or only to registered users. Content filters can be tightened or tweaked. Taking note of how these experiments play out can save time and money when buying or implementing future software solutions.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Howard Goldberg’s story.