Comments section: Why many media still believe in it

Last week, we published a story on news websites that closed their comments sections but what about those that chose to keep it?

Since its very beginning, the Coral Project, the initiative led by the Mozilla Foundation, The Washington Post and The New York Times, and funded by the Knight Foundation, has attracted a lot of attention. The open-source project aims to find new ways to engage both readers and journalists on news websites. Unsurprisingly, media organisations and journalists have been following the project closely.

Most news websites, even those that have closed their comments sections, still believe engagement is the key to creating deeper connections with their audiences. That’s also what Greg Barber, head of strategy and partnerships at the Coral Project, thinks:

“Engagement if you use that term really broadly can lead to traffic. The folks who dig really into analytics can see that true engagement—really actually connecting with users, interacting with them — is a real mean and a scientifically proven mean to find loyal users and install loyalty in them.”

The name of the project, coral, refers to its commitment to create better platforms for communities to thrive just like the marine organism does.

In March 2016, the Coral Project revealed its first product, Trust, at SXSW — Credit: The Coral Project

A team of 20 people, full-time staff and part-time contributors, is actively working on developing new tools focusing on exchanges between newsrooms and their audiences. Two different media, The Washington Post and The New York Times are collaborating on the project. Both are contributing staff and resources. The NYT has also lent some office space in Manhattan.

In March 2016, the Coral Project revealed its first product, Trust, at SXSW. The application wants to “scale the moderation of user-generated contributions by focusing on the user’s history of contributions in addition to moderating individual contributions themselves,” wrote Greg Barber in a blog post. For example, publishers could find engaged readers based on the frequency of their contributions, as well as the quality of their comments(the number of replies they get and of comments that had to be deleted). Trust is just one of the four products the Coral Project has been building.

Getting feedback from the readers through the comments section

Several media still use and benefit from older engagement tools like the comments section. The Times of London, for instance, still believes in its ability to create constructive discussion. Its business model specifically has allowed for a community of loyal commenters to develop. The Times has a paywall and commenting is “a perk of being of subscriber,” says Ben Whitelaw, head of community and digital development at The Times and the Sunday Times. As a result, the debates on the website are more constructive. Whitelaw thinks the paywall reduces the number of trolls The Times gets.

“Comments can still be a very good way to gauge interests from readers on stories”

The British newspaper values its comments sections. “Whilst newspapers and media organisations have recently really been changing the way they interact with readers, comments can still be a very good way to gauge interests from readers on stories, not only the topic of the story but how we covered it as well,” says Ben Whitelaw.

Screenshot of the interface of Trust, the Coral Project tool

A team of journalists is responsible for engaging with the audience on the website. They interact with readers, clarifying issues when The Times turns comments off, prodding readers into sharing more information about what they know, and also preventing people from getting too carried away by some issues. However, aggressive arguments rarely happen because The Times has a “very well-behaved user base,” according to Whitelaw. The media is even thinking of moving away from pre-moderation increasingly “to essentially allow posts to go up without us seeing them if the topic isn’t particularly contentious.” That could be applicable to arts reviews for example. But, Whitelaw still thinks some articles about issues like race, religion and sexuality would need pre-moderation.

Despite many news websites moving their conversations exclusively to social media, The Times is not considering following the trend and implementing the same strategy. “We’ve seen other people do that and I think it actually means we have an opportunity to become a go-to place for interesting discussion and debate,” says Ben Whitelaw. He adds:

“It’s hard to close comments and still give a sense that you respect readers especially for our demographic of readers where not all of those people are on Twitter or Facebook.”

Moreover, he thinks conversations on social media can be fragmented. Readers can share articles and debate with their friends, but The Times sees value in being a central place for its subscribers to gather and discuss a specific article written by its journalists. “It’s a key objective that we have to increase the amount of time that you spend with The Times, reading and engaging with articles for longer.”

Relying solely on comments section is not a very wise solution either, according to Greg Barber, of the Coral Project. “I think one of the challenges the news industry has had generally is that we’ve tried to use that one tool [comments sections] for what is a series of different jobs. It’s like walking around your house trying to assemble furniture, and all you have is a hammer. A hammer is useful sometimes. You need a hammer but sometimes, a screwdriver or a pair of pliers could do a better job,” says Barber, taking inspiration from the typical Ikea furniture.

Developing stronger connections with readers has been at the center of De Correspondent’s strategy. The online Dutch media built its own system, Respondens, which it will sell in the future to other media companies interested in its model. Ernst-Jan Pfauth, its co-founder and publisher, sees engagement as a responsibility for all modern journalists. “We don’t see commenting and responding to members as extra work for our journalists. We tell them ‘this is your work so take all the time you need’”. He attributes the lack of trolls on De Correspondent’s comments section to this focus De Correspondent has put on developing strong relationships between journalists and readers. He thinks this is a “quite simple” antidote to trolls.

“The Respondens platform allows journalists to truly function as discussion leaders” — Screenshot from their website

Similarly to The Times, De Correspondent works with a subscription business model. Consequently, the comments sections are only accessible to members. Non-subscribers can only email journalists.

Pfauth is categorical comments sections are not enough to engage with readers. “If you just have a comments section, then people can respond to our work but it’s already done basically,” he explains. The newsroom announces big stories they’re working on like in the past for an investigation into Shell, the Dutch oil company. They want to give people the “opportunity to contribute with their expertise beforehand as opposed to when the story is already done.”

Creating a community through story-page comments sections

Tapping into readers’ expertise is the main idea behind De Correspondent’s engagement system, Repondens. Journalists get to work conjointly with readers to get better sources and information. Pfauth thinks a lot of readers are sometimes disappointed when they read news about their field of expertise. They can feel like the coverage is superficial and that some things are missing.

This connection between journalists and readers goes further than online. De Correpondent organises hackathons to get help and crowdsource knowledge about a specific issue. One of their journalists was working on money flows in the porn industry. Data scientists and hackers met for a hackathon at De Correspondent’s newsroom. De Correspondent discovered they had porn actors among their members, so they asked one of them about her experience and wrote an article about it.

Media organisations see and build their engagement strategies differently depending on the audience they cater for. The Coral Project has been crowdsourcing its open-source tools and conversing with hundreds of news organisations around the world. “This isn’t just a small group of people creating things, and hoping the industry is going to be interested,” says Barber.

The Coral Project is aware that there is not one set of engagement tools that can suit every company similarly. Barber says:

“We want to build a software that is easily customiable and easily extensible, in that we’re keeping potential future growth in mind as we build our tools.”
“Hearken is an audience-driven framework and platform enabling journalists to partner with the public throughout the reporting process”

Building communities through the use of below-the-line comments section has been a struggle for many news websites. Some have given up, and chosen to use social media instead. Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at The Washington Post, lamented the closing of page-story comments and encouraged members of the media to take a closer look at innovative solutions.

Established media like The Guardian and The New-York Times have affirmed their commitment to story-page comments. The importance of comments section was highlighted after the Brexit when debates were particularly vibrant. A comment on a Financial Times story even became viral.

Giving a voice to readers through story-page comments sections is still seen by many publishers as an efficient and essential tool to create a loyal community. Some media also consider story-page comments sections as necessary spaces for journalism to function as a democratic institution. However, after several years experimenting, comments sections have not appeared as the ultimate and only solution to fostering better engagement. Fortunately, new initiatives and ideas like The Coral Project, De Correspondent’s Respondens, and Hearken could usher a more promising era of engagement for media worldwide.



Andrew Losowsky — Coral Project

“The recent closures of the comment section at news organizations such as NPR and Vice’s Motherboard are a troubling trend.” (American Press Insitute, 25 August 2016)

Scott Montgomery — NPR

“After much experimentation and discussion, we’ve concluded that the comment sections on NPR.org stories are not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of our users.” (The Hindu, 22 August 2016)

Kristen Taylor — Serial

“Part of my role was to make sure that the conversation continued to be as productive as possible, because with an audience of that size, you worry more about moderating comments.” (Journalism.co.uk, 8 July 2016)
Quotes brought to you by Storyzy


Get the latest on media innovation—Subscribe to our weekly newsletter or follow GEN on Twitter and Facebook.