Why news websites are closing their comments sections
As media are trying to improve their engagement with their audience, a paradoxical trend has been emerging in the last three years; many news websites are closing their below-the-line comments sections.
NPR is the latest to announce the shutdown of its own story-page section. After eight years spent experimenting with comments on its articles, the American public media decided it was not “providing a useful experience for the vast majority of [its] users”, wrote Scott Montgomery, managing editor for digital news.
NPR follows a direction initiated in 2013 by Popular Science, an American magazine. Three years after, the publication still believes it made the right decision. Carl Franzen, online director at Popular Science, sees a clear division between the website and its social media pages. “This [the website] is the place to read and share. The conversations happen on our social media channels. It’s not the primary product of our media.” Facebook, being first and foremost a social network, has the architecture and policies in place to foster better conversations where the Popular Science account as well as writers interact with their audience, according to Franzen.
Moving the conversation to the social platforms
Social media such as Facebook or Twitter make for higher quality conversations than story-page comments because of the barrier — readers have to make an extra effort to go to another website. “Although it introduces friction to the process, I think it’s helpful friction because it produces a thoughtfulness that I think sometimes is lost with the immediacy of social media,” says Franzen.
However, Arlene Burgos, head of social media at the integrated news division at ABS-CBN, a major Philippine media, is not so enthused about the quality of conversations on Facebook. ABS-CBN’s account numbers 11.7 million followers, one tenth of the Philippines’ population. According to her, Facebook offers a huge space but is not always a place for intelligent discourse. She doesn’t consider it is a place where individuals can come to discuss societal issues to influence political action like Jurgen Habermas’ public sphere.
Lately, she’s also seen a significant portion of people behaving irresponsibly and writing without thinking of the consequences their messages have. “[These people] could hijack the public discourse and could begin setting the tone of the discourse and I think it’s dangerous if it goes that way,” she says.
Megan Whelan, community engagement editor at Radio New Zealand (RNZ), which closed its comment sections a few months ago, also thinks it makes sense to move the conversation to social media because it’s where audiences are. In the case of RNZ, they are able to reach different audiences such as indigenous New Zealand people, younger people and women.
John Arne Markussen, editor in chief at Dagbladet, a Norwegian newspaper, has seen similar trends when his publication decided to focus on their social media community. He explains:
“You have to give priority to something. We decided to leave the debate to the social media.”
In Popular Science, NPR, Radio New Zealand and Dagbladet’s cases, only a minority of their actual audiences were participating in their below-the-line comments section. Only 1,400 users signed up and they were hardly commenting more than once in week on RNZ’s website. After discussing with the digital leadership team, Megan Whelan thought the only way to make story-page comments work was to devote her entire time turning it into a community, interacting and moderating.
Staff and financial resource constraints were often part of the reason why publications chose to close their own comments sections especially considering it’s a tough time in the media business, John Arne Markussen added. Dagbladet decided to create an online presence as soon as 1995. At first, there was no moderation for their comments. In 2012, they outsourced the moderation to a Swedish company. A year after, they decided to test with internal moderators, whom he sees as “debate leaders”. Some senior reporters as well as three younger journalists monitored the comments and interacted with readers. “It worked pretty well but it was a costly operation,” says Markussen.
ABS-CBN closed its story-page comments section for similar reasons; there were many comments and very few staff to moderate and fully engage with the audience. News24, a major South African media, also realized to engage comprehensively with its audience on its website would require a significant financial and staff investment. But, at the time, it had already chosen to invest in a newsroom of digital-first journalists, according to Andrew Trench, former editor in chief at News24.
The experience with page-story comment moderation at News24 reminds Bevan Lakay, community editor, of a time that was particularly hard. The volume of comments was enormous and hate speech in particular was prevalent. To make moderation easier and more efficient for journalists, the media had an automatic filter in place. Moderators would choose the words for the filter to watch out for and ban. However, it did not always work. He says:
“These guys were clever and quite meticulous. We banned one [offensive] word and the next day it would be a version of a different word. It was hard to keep up with it.”
There were several journalists in charge of moderation but the budget was still limited. Even though users had to comment through their Facebook profiles, it would not discourage them from posting hateful comments and some would slip through the careful monitoring of journalists. The News24 leadership was questioning their comments policy as it was. “We were worried about legal liability and reputational issues if we continued with our existing comments policy,” says Andrew Trench. The news publication eventually decided to shut down its comments section.
Shutting down traditional comments, not users opinion expression
Nowadays, News24’s engagement strategy focuses on encouraging people to write opinion pieces and opening comments only on the opinion pieces and some topical stories. “We found it was so much better. I would say if you had 100 comments [when the story-page comments were open], maybe 25% would be published. Now, as much as 80 to 85% get published,” Lakay says. News24 even noticed a growth in audience. “I think many people who were disgusted by the tone of the comments generally now felt it was a place they could return to,” adds Trench.
Closing the below-the-line comment sections is not a light-hearted and easy decision to make. Most often, there’s a sense of abandoning the idea of a community interacting on the website. Megan Whelan, of RNZ, thinks there’s value in having comments below a story and growing a community. Andrew Trench, of News24, adds that “[he] regrets that the ‘conversation’ that digital platforms allows is missing as it is something that can add a wonderful flavour and create a sense of community- if it is possible to manage it properly”.
“‘Conversation’ is something that can add a wonderful flavour and create a sense of community.”
While established media brands are conflicted whether to close their comments section, newer media ventures such as Vox have decided not to have any comments section. Other news websites have opted for different comment designs like Quartz, which allows users to comment on specific paragraphs. The idea came from thinking about how newspapers in the 17th and 18th century used to leave margins for their readers to write their thoughts. “This idea is to encourage thoughtful commentary and substantive contributions,” they wrote.
Social media are increasingly becoming the preferred places to foster conversations for many media. For a number of reasons including financial, staff and time constraints, popular platforms like Facebook are being chosen for their ease of moderation and opportunity to reach wider and more diverse audiences. However, these platforms do not appear as the ultimate solution for creating a vibrant, respectful and constructive space where audiences and journalists can connect and exchange. While some media still believe in the need for below-the-line comments, many newsrooms are becoming dissatisfied with the resource intensive work it requires to get only disappointing engagement. Newsrooms are thus hoping that creative initiatives such as the The Coral Project will bring more clues as to how to foster better and more inclusive engagement.
Read our article why many media still believe in the comment section: