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.
Readings and Resources
- 10 Ways Newspapers Can Improve Comments - Derek Powazek, 7/28/2008. A great set of practical suggestions for reducing inappropriate comments.
- Fasten Your Seatbelts...It's Gonna Be A Bumpy Sight - Jezebel site at Gawker, 7/9/2009 (Gawker's Jezebel site adopts 2 tiered commenting system.See also the 4/13/2010 article below from Neiman Journalism Labs on how the number of comments has increased since the new policy was adopted)
- Gawker's New Tiered Commenting System Rewards Quality Commenters - E-Media Tidbits, Poynter Online, 7/14/2009
- The Pantagraph’s Time-Out, and Other Ways to Improve Comments - Reinventing the Newsroom, 1/5/2010. A great list of simple tools that can be deployed to help moderate comments
- The why and how of a real names policy on comments - Howard Owens, 4/2/2010
- News Sites Rethink Anonymous Online Comments - New York Times, 4/11/2010
- To name or not to name? The anonymous comments conundrum - News Leadership 3.0, Knight Digital Media Center, 4/13/2010
- Tough love: Gawker finds making it harder for comments to be seen leads to more (and better) comments - Nieman Journalism Lab, 4/13/2010
- Slate, Time, WashPo And Other Big-Name Publishers Add The Echo Comment Platform - TechCrunch, 5/12/2010
- Stat of the Day: 63% of Readers Don't Care About Your Comments - Ad Age, 8/9/2011
- Nick Denton wants to turn the online media world on its head - GigaOm, 4/20/2012; Includes Denton comments on the failure of Gawker's comments system.
- Hello, and Welcome To Gawker’s New Commenting System - Gawker, 4/26/2012; Gawker introduces another comments system, which includes asking commenters to police responses to their comments.
- Pay attention to what Nick Denton is doing with comments - Nieman Journalism Lab, 6/22/2012
- For once, Nick Denton seems pleased with Gawker’s commenting system - Nieman Jouranlism Lab, 7/10/2012
- Surprisingly Good Evidence That Real Name Policies Fail To Improve Comments - TechCrunch, 7/29/2012
- New study: Real names improve quality of website comments - Poynter Online, 7/31/2012
- Online comments hurt science understanding, study finds - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 1/3/2013
- The ‘‘Nasty Effect:’’ Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies - Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 2/19/2013
- Exegesis: How early adapters, innovative publishers, legacy media companies and more are pushing toward the annotated web - Nieman Journalism Lab, 8/12/2013
- No Comments - New York Times, 9/20/2013. Includes a history of the evolution of online comments.
- Disruptions: Gawker Wants to Encourage More Voices Online, but With Less Yelling - New York Times, 9/22/2013