Reuters were right to close comments because they didn’t know how it could make them money

Earlier this week, Reuters announced that they would be closing comments on news stories. Their argument, Executive Editor Dan Collarusso explained, was that social media had become the place to discuss news. “The best place for conversation is where it is open to the largest number of participants possible” he wrote.

As is often the case when a site stops readers from leaving comments (as Popular Science did in September 2013), the news triggered a wave of soul-searching about the value of reader comments. Engagement, transparency and accountability were given as reasons for allowing readers to have their say. The retort was that comments didn’t make a community.

In all the analysis, I was surprised that revenue wasn’t mentioned as a benefit of getting readers to comment. The idea of customer retention didn’t crop up either. And churn (the proportion of customers who leave during a given period, something news organisations have always measured in print and latterly online) was absent. The phrase ‘Business goals’ appeared briefly but was not elaborated upon.

Show me the money

James Glossop for The Times

At The Times and The Sunday Times, we have comments on articles because we think it’s a useful lever to reduce the number of subscribers who don’t renew their subscription (NB: both titles have a paid content strategy). Not because of engagement or loyalty or transparency or any other intangibles but to help sustain the business.

One of our goals each month is to get more people writing comments and recommending other comments. To do that, our community and social media team diligently weed out the trouble makers, ban those who have no intention of taking part in debate and welcome first-time commenters who may be new to commenting. As pointed out, it’s an investment but one we think worth making.

It seems to be working too. Around 1 in 20 of Times readers take part in debate on each day, a number we’re pretty proud of. A proportion of those write comments but more than half take part by simply recommending comments, something that can only come about if we create the environment for people to leave good comments in the first place. Recommends trigger an email notification to the original poster and float the best ones to the top of threads, meaning both lurking reader and active participant benefit. Through effective community management, we’d hope to get the number of participating readers up to 1 in ten.

James Glossop for The Times

Now, I won’t say we know the precise effect that commenting has customer retention on our subscriber base just yet. But working with a new department within News UK, it won’t be long before we understand more about the optimum point in a customer’s lifecycle that we should prompt them to get them involved or the kinds of response which work best for encouraging repeat commenting or the key influencers within the community to make people stick around. If we can reduce churn by a few percent using that data, it would provide an estimated revenue uplift of several hundred thousand pounds. Which goes some way to answering the question about the value of comments, I think.

So, in a sense, Reuters were right to get rid of comments on news articles. Without an idea of how comments could affect their bottom line, it’s a cost which they probably can do without right now. At The Times and The Sunday Times, meanwhile, we’ll try and prove the benefits of comments to the business and our journalism.