I am the sort of reader who is willing to invest the time to comment thoughtfully, but I seldom do so on news sites. I contribute on Quora, and I belong to forums. And I occasionally comment in Medium.
Despite the time it takes, there is a benefit to me in reputation (in the above communities, a sort of relationship and on-going dialogue is being built up, either with followers or around topics/publications or with forum ‘friends’). For news sites, what is the benefit? I also agree with other comments about the value of curated/vetted comments, either as letters or with community-based voting of some sort.
If a news site does not pay attention to, and try to influence, the motivations of commenters then you end up with the grandstanding and venting and polarized tit-for-tat that is so common. I read the Guardian site daily, but I gave up on the comments for this reason. Moreover, when there are so many comments in a long string or feed that are listed chronologically, it’s rather akin to a private group in Facebook where the timeline makes the good stuff too time-consuming to extract. Time is precious to both readers and commenters, and so neither has strong incentive to contribute.
I’ve just started reading the book “Buzzing Communities” by Richard Millington, after hearing him interviewed on the Psych Files podcast. I imagine you could probably write a book on the topic yourself, but there is a review here of his experience as a consultant to online community-builders about the psychological principles that help drive participation that may be another source of ideas. The Psych Files podcast episode that features him would provide a sense of the author’s experience if you were interested.
I completed your survey, and I’d like to reinforce one thing in the survey. I replied that it is off-putting when authors don’t engage in the debate. We all realize that journalists are busy, but they are not alone in that, and if they want engagement in dialogue surely they should be part of it? Journalists cannot put themselves on pedestals or isolate themselves from their readership if they want to foster online communities: the web does not respect such traditional notions of deference. It seems to me that the model of traditional journalism is a one-way communication, and the concept of comment is surely a metaphor that originates in the idea of dialogue.
Most comments sections feel psychologically and physically like you are talking to yourself. Contrast that to Medium or a forum or Quora, and you are fully expecting a reaction. Moreover, on Quora (like Twitter) you are one contact away from people you would normally not have access to, I believe this attracts many thoughtful contributors motivated by the dialogue and by learning. This triggers a different type of engagement on the part of all parties, and might also help moderate the tone and civility of comments that many have mentioned. I would strongly endorse, by the way, the need to encourage civil debate.