Let’s give reader comments another chance — and for real, this time

It’s our duty as journalists (and it also makes sound business sense)

Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Most people in the news industry hate comments. But that’s only because we invest too little in them. It’s like complaining about your relationship, but never being home for a good heart-to-heart.

And yet audience engagement — just like love, by the way — is so worth the investment. Especially now that Americans’ and Europeans’ trust in media and journalists has sunk to a new low. Talking to each other can help build relationships and therefore trust.

What business leader out there doesn’t want to earn more per user? And what journalist doesn’t want to have the best sources for stories and the greatest possible impact?

Audience engagement is especially important in a time where many people feel a serious disconnect with corporate media, who they feel speak more for business interests than serve the public good.

Audience engagement can give us all that. Think about it:

  1. Commercial benefit: Greater participation means greater loyalty. Because readers are part of a community, instead of an anonymous collection of users, they will be more inclined to renew their subscriptions (good for retention).
  2. Commercial benefit: Now that platforms like Facebook and Snapchat are ubiquitous, every publication is looking for ways to connect with its readers. If readers get involved in discussions on your platform, there’s more reason to stop by every day. Besides, the bond between reader and writer is stronger than between reader and institution.
  3. Benefit for both readers and journalists alike: Higher quality, better-informed articles. All readers have found themselves in this situation: when a piece addresses your particular area of expertise, you notice that some things simply aren’t correct. Perhaps corporate spin has skewed the journalist’s understanding of the topic, or the writer has used only a limited number of sources. If every reader had the opportunity to provide real feedback based on his or her own expertise, the publication as a whole would be of higher quality. And all the articles you enjoy would be better.
  4. Benefit for the journalist: A network that goes beyond the standard list of industry experts. Not only the spokespeople, lobbyists, policymakers, and opinion leaders at the top know how to find you, but others on the ground, representing a wide range of occupations and pursuits. This is especially important in a time where many people feel a serious disconnect with corporate media, who they feel speak more for business interests than serve the public good.
  5. Benefit for the journalist: If readers have contributed to your reporting, they become proud ambassadors of your published story, promoting your work within their own networks. This enlarges your readership and increases your reach, taking your important information to as many readers as possible.
  6. Benefit for society: The media will be more inclusive and more diverse if people from all walks of life can contribute to the reporting process.

You could say we live in an era in which it’s more feasible than ever before to have the people’s knowledge and experience come through in journalism. Interaction can now go much further than the traditional Letter to the Editor.

Then why does it still go wrong? Why are we still writing into the void instead of prompting conversations? Why do we continue to see “the people formerly known as the audience” as, well, an audience?

Why are reputed journalism outlets, like National Public Radio, Vice Motherboard, The Verge, Reuters, and Bloomberg shutting down their comments sections?

Why are they handing over their precious readers to advertising giants like Twitter and Facebook for some “interaction”? Those are places, as Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post writes, “where many journalists congregate to talk shop [Twitter], or which can become an echo chamber of like-minded friends reinforcing one another’s beliefs [Facebook].”

This is what goes wrong on both sides

Over the last eight years, I’ve spoken with hundreds of journalists and readers about this very issue, and worked with many of them towards a solution. Allow me to briefly summarize the sentiments of both parties:

What journalists think about reader participation:

“We’d be willing to give it a try — and involve readers in our research — but our managers would never in a million years give us the time to do it. They’d ask why we only penned four articles this week instead of five. And besides that, it’s always one long anonymous shouting match, with some conspiracy theorist trying to trump the next with brand new “evidence” on Kennedy or 9/11.”

What readers think about reader participation:

“We all dedicate our lives to a particular expertise or skill and we’re willing to share what we know. We want to play a part in informing other readers about our area of expertise. We wouldn’t mind answering some questions, or taking the time to fill in the gaps in your research. As long as you genuinely want to know the real answers. And as long as you don’t then turn around and reach for that same old list of folks who have made a career out of providing ‘expert opinions’ to the sensationalistic media.”

The result

Mutual distrust means the two sides don’t often speak to each other. Most readers skip the comments section, leaving it to the shouters, and journalists see little reason to look at reader comments post-publication.

Or to capture it in an infographic, there’s a lot of potential left untapped in this process:

This is how Meg Pickard (then Head of Digital at The Guardian) explained things in 2010 to audience engagement strategist Joy Mayer. Unfortunately, it’s still relevant.

9 conditions for engaged readers

Okay, so how can we fix this?

How can we ensure that journalists act as conversation leaders, and readers as contributing experts?

First of all: by interacting with readers not as a side project or obligation, but as an integral part of the work of a modern-day journalist. Talking to your audience isn’t extra work, it is your work.

Otherwise the comments section will remain an anonymous place to vent.

If you think participation is important, you have to convince people reader by reader. And journalist by journalist. Below, I lay out nine conditions for engaged readers, which may help you in your own struggle to boost reader participation.

My list is based on the following sources:

  1. The conversations I’ve had with countless journalists and readers over the past eight years — and yes, you could call it an obsession.
  2. Studies by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Parse.ly and articles by organizations that share their knowledge — like local news startup Hearken, the fantastic Coral Project, and The Guardian.
  3. My own experience at De Correspondent, an ad-free journalism platform in the Netherlands with 48,000 paying members — members who we encourage on a daily basis to be a part of our many investigative projects.

Okay, here we go:

1. Everyone in the organization recognizes that readers possess relevant knowledge and expertise, be it through their job, education, or life experience.

And that it is our responsibility as journalists to involve these reader-sources as much as possible in our reporting. This is key, because then no one will view speaking with readers as “extra work,” but as an essential part of the job.

2. Journalists don’t only ask for contributions from readers *after* publication, but also announce new articles-in-the-making ahead of time.

It’s not wise to limit reader participation to post-publication comments on a story that’s finished. That reduces reader expertise to an afterthought.

Far better to give readers the opportunity to send in tips at the start of a new story or investigative project. As they say at Hearken:

“If there’s no pathway for input from your audience to shape the content decisions your newsroom is making, then it’s not audience engagement.”

That’s why we always announce new projects at De Correspondent, and at the same ask who among our readers can help:

A call to our readers, by our correspondent Climate and Energy. Click to read the article
And by our Guest Correspondent Music Industry.

Note: Of course this won’t work for investigative pieces that must remain under wraps until publication. You’ll be able to write more such exposés, however, if you expand your network to include readers.

3. Readers know exactly what journalists expect of them

It helps if journalists clearly state which missing links they are still looking for. Readers with that particular expertise then feel called to contribute.

And the discussion doesn’t get bogged down in a general exchange of interchangeable opinions. The discussion has direction; the community knows what’s being sought after.

You can include a feature in your CMS that allows authors to voice a specific call to readers at the close of every article.

4. Journalists keep and share a public notebook

Between the initial call for a new project and publication of the final piece, engaged journalists let their readers hear from them. Journalists keep and share a public notebook, as it were. For example, they

  • recommend interesting books and documents encountered in researching their current topic,
  • share initial findings from interviews, and
  • refer to articles on the same topic by other publications.

Look at how Joris Luyendijk of The Guardian shared transcriptions of interviews with bankers on his Banking Blog (which eventually led to this book):

Go the Banking Blog

Now you might think, “Is the average reader served by this?”

Not the average reader, no. But the reader whose occupation or education relates to this area is well served indeed. This kind of update likely encourages such readers to take a more active part in your project.

That’s why you can put this kind of material on a separate blog. Or as we do at De Correspondent, give readers the opportunity to follow their favorite authors. When you follow an author, you also get their specialist updates in your feed.

For a public notebook to work, it’s essential that not every piece be required to be a hit. Updates serve a purpose beyond pure traffic: They encourage a well-informed public to share what they know.

5. Authors get involved in discussions

This is simple, but oh so important. If the author doesn’t get involved in the discussion, readers might as well be talking to the wall.

And author involvement is the key to a civilized discussion. Angry readers change their tune when they realize a “real person” is listening, and one who’s genuinely interested in their knowledge and experience.

At De Correspondent, we often invite people we’ve interviewed to take part in the discussion.

Honor good questions with a good answer, stick to the facts, thank readers for providing invaluable tips that can take your project a step further, and calmly urge the rabble-rousers to tone it down.

Keeping a discussion civil has nothing to do with censorship. Many readers consider moderated discussion a limitation on free speech, but when you view comments as an integral part of journalism instead of a wailing wall everyone can scrawl on, moderation becomes just another form of editing.

6. Readers respond using their real names

I realize this is a controversial position, but in every journalism project I’ve been a part of, I’ve seen that using real names leads to more constructive discussions. It’s more personal, more professional, and suddenly everyone has a reputation on the line.

Margaret Sullivan, now the media columnist for The Washington Post, recalls that back when she was Editor in Chief of the Buffalo News, removing reader anonymity led to greater civility.

And after all, journalists don’t operate in anonymity, so why should readers?

At De Correspondent, only members can comment. We can check their names against payment information.

If people still want to remain anonymous — whistleblowers, for instance — then they use email (which can be encrypted) to get in touch.

7. Journalists highlight valued contributions

It’s important that readers see their contributions are appreciated and useful. Don’t leave them guessing on this one.

So when you make use of a tip from a reader, give the reader credit in your follow-up piece, at least in a footnote. That encourages other readers to share their knowledge with you.

Or introduce an ‘editor’s picks’ tab in your comments sections, like at The New York Times.

The New York Times highlights valuable comments

At De Correspondent, authors can highlight contributions that have journalistic value. They then appear at the top of the discussion, and the reader receives an automatically generated thank-you email from the author (which sometimes leads to an interesting email exchange).

8. The technology supports the community

You can come a long way with a team of journalists that understands the value of interacting with readers and does so on a daily basis. But well-conceived technological support and design nudges can also make a big difference.

At De Correspondent, we decided that discussions will only be visible to our members (annual membership fee works out to 5 euros a month). Reader contributions are also not indexed by Google. This is how we’ve created a safe place for interaction.

We also don’t call them reader “comments” but “contributions,” to emphasize that it’s about contributing to the article, to the discussion, to journalism, and not simply about airing a response. And the contribution field contains the placeholder, “Share your knowledge or experience. Or ask a question.” Just another gentle reminder that this is about sharing expertise.

We call them contributions instead of comments

9. Publications help readers establish authority and grow their reputation

One of the best developments in this respect is Quora’s “Bio”:

The bio feature on Quora

This type of expertise title has at least four things going for it:

  1. You instantly put readers in the mindset that it’s about sharing knowledge, and that you see them as potential experts.
  2. Readers no longer have to awkwardly introduce themselves and explain why they are an authority. (Hello, Mr. Modest.) It’s right there at the top.
  3. The titles help other readers understand that their peers are also commenting, which might motivate them to join the discussion.
  4. Journalists can easily scan the comments by expertise title.

That’s why we’ve shamelessly copied this feature at De Correspondent:

Members can add a specific bio for every contribution they write.
And here’s how the bio looks in the contributions

It’s also important that readers can build up a reputation within your publication. To start with, it makes your site more addictive, but it also makes it easy for you to discover interesting experts among your readers.

One of the most elegant examples is the reputation score at Stack Overflow, the question-and-answer forum for programmers:

“The primary way to gain reputation is by posting good questions and useful answers. Votes on these posts cause you to gain (or sometimes lose) reputation.”

The score is listed by every post a user makes. Some developers even put their score on their résumé.

What can an individual journalist do right now?

Many of the nine recommendations have to be implemented at board room level, so there’s a big chance that any change will take years. What can an individual journalist do in the meantime?

(Posted these recommendations also separately here so they’re easier to share within your organization)

  • Announce the stories you’re working on, using an external blog if need be, or with a screenshot of your Notes app on Twitter. Give readers the chance to contribute to your work while you’re still in the research stage.
  • Find your readers. Share your calls for reader input with academics, experts in the field, NGOs and other organizations. Make use of relevant LinkedIn or Facebook groups, for instance. And ask specific questions!
  • Share your best practices and your successes with colleagues. One of the best things about interaction with readers is that you get direct feedback, which you can then use to convince others of the value of interaction.
  • Does your publication have a comments section? Spend some time posting there. Your colleagues may think you’re crazy, but keep it up. After a while, you’ll see that the reader comments under your articles are of a much higher quality that elsewhere on the site.
  • Tell your manager you consider diversity important in your sources, and ask how much time you can free up each day to that end. Use that time to interact with readers, and don’t forget to share your successes with your manager.

Open questions and challenges

Not long ago, we published an article on De Correspondent about certification programs for fair trade products. It just so happens that my fiancée has her own fashion line and runs a clothing factory in Nepal, so she knows a thing or two about fair trade certification. When I asked why she didn’t join in the discussion online, she looked at me as if I had asked her to sort our household garbage by color.

“I am not about to go comment on some website,” she said.

This is an ongoing battle — even in my own family. Online comments have such a bad name it’s going to take years for us to restore their image.

At the same time, we face a bunch of new challenges. At the moment, I’m trying to come up with ways to deal with the following:

  • Every online community has them — the people who respond to everything and view your site as a chat forum. This group of diehards can scare other users away. It’s like walking into a bar and having all the regulars just sit and stare at you.
  • Sometimes the sheer number of readers weighing in on a particular topic is so overwhelming that the journalist in question just can’t answer all queries themselves. At De Correspondent we’ll then often enlist the help of research assistants. But perhaps we could develop software to help create some order in the chaos. The Coral Project — that collaboration between The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Mozilla Foundation — is doing great things in that direction.
  • Also, members can’t take the initiative. They always have to follow the direction our journalists take. That doesn’t make sense, since 47,000 members see and know more than our 30 authors. The start-up Hearken and The Coral Project’s Ask are doing a good job of redressing this imbalance: Readers pitch ideas for stories, other readers vote on what they want to see covered, and then journalists take it from there.
Hearken in action, on The Chicago Tribune’s site.
  • Reader participation seems to work well with specialty questions, and not so well with topics everyone has a strong opinion about, like Israel or Donald Trump. Then the conversation quickly turns ugly.

I’ll continue to cover this issue on Medium and would love to hear about your experiences in the field. I’ll update this piece with new insights.