Comments from readers are probably one of the thorniest problems for online publishers of all kinds, both traditional media and digital-only outlets, and the methods for dealing with them are all over the map — some have given their comments over to Facebook to manage, while others like Gawker are experimenting with levelling the playing field between commenters and staff writers. With new entrants like Branch and Medium trying to expand the way we look at online discussion, even the New York Times is experimenting with making comments from readers part of the stories they refer to.
As outlined in a piece at Journalism.co.uk, the NYT recently started highlighting specific comments from readers inside certain stories, such as a feature on the orange-growing industry and the clash over DNA-modification of food. According to an editor at the newspaper, the Times journalist who wrote the piece chose a dozen or so comments that they thought made specific points on the topic, and embedded them alongside the text of the story under the heading “Readers’ Perspectives” — in much the same way that quotes from sources in a story are often highlighted in a sidebar.
A way of making comments more useful
NYT deputy editor of interactive news Marc Lavallee said that the newspaper is trying to find ways of making comments more useful for readers, and also sees the experiment as a way of encouraging readers to post thoughtful comments instead of just starting flame wars. This isn’t the first time the paper has tried to offer incentives for good behavior: in 2011, the Times started giving specific readers who had made valuable contributions in the comment section the ability to post comments without having them reviewed by an editor. Lavallee told Journalism.co.uk:
“[We] wanted to highlight the most insightful perspectives, especially for readers who don’t normally wade into comments. We think it’s a signal to commenters that if you’re going to spend five, 10, 15 minutes contributing to a discussion on our site, we value your contribution and want other readers to gain from it.”
The New York Times feature — which can also be seen in a story on the American health-care system — looks a lot like the commenting system that is used at Medium, the publishing startup founded by former Twitter executives Evan Williams and Biz Stone. Instead of having comments at the end of a piece, Medium allows readers to attach their comments to specific paragraphs within a post, where they show up as a number that readers can click on. As with the NYT system, the author of the piece gets to decide which comments show up, rather than having them posted automatically.
Blurring the line between reader and writer
Another startup that has been trying to change the way online discussions happen is Branch, which was funded by Evan Williams’ Obvious Corp. (among others). Founder Josh Miller has said the idea behind the site was to encourage higher-quality discussions than most comment sections tend to produce, by giving editors or bloggers the ability to choose who takes part in a discussion — instead of the free-for-all that many comment sections seem to turn into. Miller said recently that Branch has become popular with traditional media outlets as a way of hosting more focused conversations around their content.
But the publisher who is probably pushing the boundaries around reader comments the most is Gawker Media founder Nick Denton, who has been rolling out a new discussion platform across all of Gawker’s sites called Kinja, which gives every commenter who registers with the network their own blog — and is now starting to allow readers to actually rewrite the headline and description of stories from Gawker sites and post them to their Kinja blogs. As Denton has put it,
“Publishing should be a collaboration between authors and their smartest readers — and at some point the distinction should become meaningless.”
Media theorist Dan Gillmor started talking about how the web dissolves the barriers between journalists and “the people formerly known as the audience” almost a decade ago in his book We The Media, but media outlets are still wrestling with exactly what that means, and how to take advantage of it without losing the signal amidst all the noise. If nothing else, it’s nice to see the Times experimenting with giving its readers a higher profile.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / donskarpo