the transition to digital journalism

Comments on News Stories

One of the most basic ways that a news organization can engage people is to provide a way for them to comment on and discuss news stories on the website and postings to staff weblogs.

Newspapers and magazines have long allowed public comment in the form of letters to the editor. But online comments are as much about people communicating and interacting with each other, as they are just reacting to a reporter's story.

They are a way of engaging people in a conversation about the news and recognizing that a story does not end with its publication, but rather is a starting point for generating commentary and contributions by the public.

But because online comments aren't as strictly vetted as letters to the editor, they have proved vexing for many news organizations.

Only a very small percentage of readers usually will comment on any given news story or blog posting, and most comments will be made by a relative handful of frequent posters who may not be representative of general readership. This has been referred to as the 90-9-1 rule, which means 90 percent of people won't post any comments, 9 percent will post infrequently, and 1 percent will account for the vast majority of the postings.

On the 90-9-1 rule, see Jakob Nielsen's article on "Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute."

One survey by AdAge found that 63% of readers said they were not more likely to visit a news site because it allowed posting of comments (although young adults were much more inclined to visit sites with commenting).

A few people also will post comments that are offensive or disruptive, quickly turning an intelligent discussion into an online food fight. In the blogging community, such posters are referred to as "trolls."

Another major problem is spammers, who will bombard comments with messages that hawk products or promote online scams.

Because of the offensive postings, a number of news organizations have closed down comments - either temporarily or permanently - after the discussions degenerated into name calling or worse. The Washington Post, for example, shut down comments on its post.com blog in January 2006.

As Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com, explained the decision:

"...there are things that we said we would not allow, including personal attacks, the use of profanity and hate speech. Because a significant number of folks who have posted in this blog have refused to follow any of those relatively simple rules, we’ve decided not to allow comments for the time being."

For more on the Post's decision, see the online chat with Brady.

News organizations also feel the nasty and offensive comments threaten their brands as reputable sources of news.

Some have argued that news organizations just need to swallow hard and live with offensive comments because the value of opening up  to reader comments outweighs the downsides.

Others have adopted various schemes for trying to regulate and upgrade the conversations:

  • Human editors vet comments, either before they're posted or afterward, and remove any that are deemed offensive or violate the publication's guidelines for comment posting.
  • Readers are invited to report offensive comments to editors so they can be reviewed and removed.
  • Software solutions are adopted to filter comments, such as allowing readers to rank the value of comments and try to relegate offensive ones to the bottom. See SlashDot for one such system.
  • Tiered commenting systems are implemented, in which comments by people who have a track record of posting valuable comments appear first, while comments by everyone else appear on second tier below.
  • Requiring that people sign in using their social network identities such as Facebook in order to post comments. See the section of this tutorial on Facebook Connect.
  • The New York Times in 2013 began placing selected comments in the body of news stories at approprite points. This seemed to help elevate the overall quality of comments on the stories. And it gave more importance to reader feedback, integrating it into the story rather that exiling it to the end.
  • The Quartz news site in 2013 began placing comments adjacent to paragraphs in its stories, so comments are contextual rather than buried at the end of a story. The approach is modeled on how the site Medium places its comments, which it calls notes.

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