Ending reader comments is a mistake, even if you are Reuters

27 Comments

Credit: Pond5

Anyone who has followed our coverage of online media probably knows that I am in favor of media entities giving their readers the option to comment — even though comment sections are often filled with trolls, flame wars and spam. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I think Reuters is making a mistake by removing the option to comment from its news articles. Even though Reuters is a newswire service with mostly corporate clients, I think the reasoning behind its decision is flawed.

In a post about the decision, Reuters Digital executive editor Dan Colarusso describes it as a necessary evolution, brought about by changes in reader behavior. In other words, he argues that the Reuters website doesn’t really need to have comments on its news articles any more because people are commenting elsewhere — primarily Twitter and Facebook:

Colarusso is describing two factors here, which are related but still distinct: on the one hand, conversation has moved to social-media platforms — something no one would argue with, and certainly not me. We’ve noticed it at Gigaom, just like every other media outlet: more and more readers are discussing our content on Twitter and Facebook, or on their own blogs. But is that enough justification for giving up comments? I don’t think so.

Handing value to Facebook

The second point Colarusso is making is that social platforms are “self-policed” and therefore are less susceptible to abuse. I’m not sure everyone would agree with that statement, however — Twitter in particular often gets criticized for the level of flaming and abuse that occurs there, and Facebook is not immune either. It may be less visible because it doesn’t happen right next to your content, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening at all.

What I think Colarusso really means is that moderation or policing of behavior no longer becomes Reuters’ problem, and therefore the company doesn’t have to spend the money to hire moderators. This is why other sites like Popular Science have also done away with comments, and it was one of the most common defenses given for the Reuters decision during a Twitter debate I engaged in after the announcement.

As I tried to point out, what Reuters is really doing is two-fold: it is effectively offloading the cost of moderation to its writers — who will now be responding on Twitter and Facebook either on their own time or during work hours or both — and it is handing over much of the value of that engagement with readers to Twitter and Facebook and other social platforms.

The bottom line is that if the discussion and debate and interaction around a news story occurs somewhere else, then soon the readers who are interested in that engagement will start to think of the platform where it occurs as the important part of the relationship — not the site that actually created the content. Facebook is more or less counting on that to happen, which is why it wanted to get news publishers and other sites to implement its commenting tools in the first place.

Providing value for readers

It’s true that Reuters is primarily a commercial news-wire service, and so its primary customers are not individual readers but corporations that subscribe to its service. And yet, the company clearly wants to have a consumer presence of some kind, or it wouldn’t be launching things like a customized video offering for news consumers, which it announced on Tuesday.

Many people complain about comment sections, but in my experience just as many either secretly or not-so-secretly enjoy the back-and-forth of reader discussion, even if it does get out of hand sometimes. And one of the most important aspects of comments isn’t just that it gives those who comment a place to put their remarks — it’s that it allows other readers who may never comment to see those discussions taking place, and hopefully see journalists responding to those comments.

This is another key flaw in allowing social platforms to take over the discussion around your content: not everyone is on Twitter, and not everyone is on Facebook, and so any conversation or interaction that occurs there will be invisible to many — and even for those who are on these platforms, the discussion might get lost amid the never-ending stream of content that flows by every day. Why would you force them to go looking for the discussion around your content instead of showing it to them?

Giving away the keys

I’ve argued before that interacting with a community of readers — the people formerly known as the audience — isn’t just a luxury in today’s environment, it’s a necessity. And that’s the case for Reuters too, since its dominance as a news entity is declining rapidly, even with corporate users.

Is moderation a pain, and an expensive proposition? Sure it is. Lots of things that matter to your business are expensive. And if you have an engaged community, they can become your moderators, as successful online communities like Slashdot and Metafilter have shown — which in turn helps strengthen your community. Ending comments means removing any chance that this will ever happen.

Facebook and Twitter and other platforms are tools you can use, and should use, but they don’t have your best interests at heart — your content and the engagement it generates are just a way for them to produce advertising revenue. For you, those relationships are the key to whatever monetization opportunities you might have, whether it’s real-world events or subscription products. Why would you choose to hand over the keys to that kingdom to someone else?

Images: Keyboard via Pond5

27 Comments

Ruth Boaz

Everything you are discussing is a recent development–as we “old timers” read newspapers or watched TV news before all the online news and blogs. With newspapers, we had the “letters to the editor” section after the editor published his opinion piece. (The forerunner of blogs?) You better believe the letters were censored–and you had to include your real name to get the letter published. So, if you wanted to respond to a topic in an angry matter–or start a “letters-to-the-editor war” with another reader–everyone in your community could read it–and then provide YOU with their opinions . . . on your opinions–perhaps when they bump into you at the grocery store. This was a natural form of “filtering” and a type of self-censorship–as how many people do you REALLY want to alienate in your neighborhood or community? The way to express your opinions about TV content, or the news, was/still is to write to the station airing the program or the news. There is no on-line community to start a flame war in this venue. My point I will make is that writers expressing opinions about anything, before online comments became part of our world, had to bear responsibility for their opinions–no hiding behind user names and e-mail addresses. As I said, this is a natural form of filtering and censorship. For everyone disappointed that comments on articles may become a thing of the past–many online commenters brought this upon you. There are no manners online. No one is allowed their opinion without a hater or two to bust some caps to shout you down. I used to wonder what happened to bullies once they graduated from grade school and high school. After reading online comments–esp on Facebook–I know where they are!!! Take heart: even in an era of opinion-entitlement-thinking–which makes anyone over 40 wonder why you think you are entitled to your opinion of everyone else’s opinion . . . there will still be ways to express yourselves. The people writing articles online had to do some work to get their writing online. you, too, can do some work! Start your own blog where you can review everyone’s articles/opinions. Not sure why businesses need to absorb expensive moderators, to keep the peace, at anyone’s insistence of how vital the comment section is. Vital to whom . . . perhaps a bully that just HAS to let someone know how wrong they are? I can’t wait until comment sections everywhere disappear–as I leave this comment. Many of my favorite stores have closed over the years–I mourn them, then move on. You will survive without leaving a comment on something you have read. As a whole–the world will be better off for it when comments are a thing of the past. An end to haters, flamers, and bullies–is a good thing.

Guy Holder

Like one commenter noted already, I won’t visit sites that don’t take comments.
It is a very unsettling trend. Basically, these have become sites for the distribution of propaganda. This was never about trolling but rather being able to present viewpoints and factually incorrect or incomplete information unopposed.

Nat Readerland

Oddly enough I am enjoying CNN more now that they only turn on comments for select stories….I had tired of watching the comments sections not even address the article or quickly degrade into a hate filled bowl of personal attacks. I don’t rely on research for whether it is good or bad. I rely on personal preference. Even if they did not pass the buck to facebook or Twitter I still would support it. Maybe that was what I liked about newspapers…..you read the news and discussed with those around you. Anonymity is known to breed vicious behavior, much as cars can breed road rage….comment sections in news stories became nothing more than a version of road rage, where instead of debating the story, readers lashed out with personal, racial or ethnic attacks…..

Keith Hawn

It is obvious neither M Ingram nor any commenter to his post have spent any real time on Reuter’s comments section. As a “veteran” of same, I will tell you it is like any other – 80% of the (ad hominem) comments were made by 20% of the commenters, each with a political axe to grind. They were making Reuters look bad via (a) crappy, vitriolic comments and (b) trashing Reuters writers, Reuters political leaning, etc.

The Reuters press release announcing the end of comments is complete BS. The real reason, as at most other places that have killed them, is that the comments added NO VALUE to the readership at large, and are thus a sink hole of expense to (begrudgingley) manage and maintain.

And I did it in 5000 fewer words the M Ingram did….

btpubinc

Very good article. And this is why I never have gone back to Huff Post since they started the same thing.

Dring

The very fact you have to Storify these comments shows that Twitter, FB etc are not the best place for readers to engage in discussions about articles.

When you need another entire social network to make sense of another social networks comments you’ve got problems.

Nat Readerland

I agree on many levels. I think what may drive it is the site and the readers it attracts. Many large scale new sites should get rid of comments because they lend nothing to the site, story or reader engagement. Some sites, comment sections are useful spirited discussions. For example, CNN is much.better without comments while smaller articles like this benefit from it because Itis. More an exchange of ideas.

Jesse Janowiak

Comment sections are to news articles as TV screens are to restaurants: I don’t particularly enjoy looking at them, but they always suck my attention away from things I’d rather be doing.

I’d be interested in seeing some research about the silent majority of readers who don’t actively engage in the comments section, and whether they have a higher opinion of sites that enable them or not. You, and a number of the commenters in this thread, presume that the goodwill of the minority who do like to post and read comments is not being offset in someway by the quiet uneasiness of the people who don’t.

BoboBon

Removing of the comments section is certainly one of the more shortsighted decisions by Reuters. Reuters may save a few dollars today, only to lose it all at some point in the not too distant future.

The social networks are Reuter’s competition in the long run, not just a sideshow to offload a few trolls to.

I’d fire the person who did this. Not because I care for the comments so much, but because it shows that Reuters has no clue and it is poor business judgment.

suzie

When a site allows commenting it makes me feel like they care about the readers and clients of their site. I don’t like the one-way street that many sites are adopting. But I certainly understand why. And I appreciate the coverage you do on this topic.
So…
This platform is maybe 17 yrs old by now but it was way ahead of its time when it was first invented. It is now starting to be used, though Amazon has been using it for about 5 years now, by a few companies and it could use a more widespread presence. http://www.knowledgecenter.com/
Users rate multi-criteria categories including as simple as Pro and Con and so the poor quality comments go to the background. You can bring them up if you want to see the selections but they get voted down so unless you seek them out they aren’t in plain view. Automatic without moderators. And consolidator sites, like social sites, should be sharing the data they accumulate with the contributors that actually create it. That was the original intent of the KnowledgeFilter software. Alas, for the good ol’ days of the Internet when profit wasn’t the first thing one one’s mind!

Billy Goatbridge

“COMMENTORS ARE EAST COAST ELEET LIBERAL FEMINAZI ALIEN LIZARDS WHO ARE PROPS OF THE LIBEL MEDIA (LIKE GIGAOM) AND WANT NOTHING BUT TO KILL YOUR GRAMMA, STRENGTHEN TERRORIST, TAKE AWAY CHRISTMAS AND OUR GUNS, AND GIVE AWAY ALL OUR FREEDOMS. GET A JOB! THNAKS OBAMACARE!”

frank

The irony.

I’ve posted here before and had my comments blackholed. No ‘awaiting moderation.’ Try repeating it and, “Looks like you’ve posted that already!” Yet, no comment from me.

I’ve stopped posting anywhere that disallows comments without login or moderates comments before they are posted. It’s all censorship in the end.

Jenny Halasz

I write for Search Engine Land and typically have 20-40 comments on each article. In an area where much of the information is opinion, you have to let people share other ways of looking at things. I engage with my commenters, and we often have discussions that are so worthwhile, I edit the article to include them. I think passing the buck to Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and whatever else is a mistake.

somedaygirl

I always scan the comments- yes there are usually a lot to weed through- but there are also a lot of insightful comments and they are also a good gauge of what people really think.

bob

Please. We’re just a bunch of trolls. I don’t know why you even want us here except that it’s the only way you can figure out whether your words meant anything to anyone. If a virtual tree is killed in a virtual forest to print a virtual newspaper and no one comments, did it make a sound?

Deezy

$10 says you aren’t the guy at Gigaom that has to go moderate all of the forums and columns, amiright??!?!?!? Sorry, but there are so many haters, trolls, malcontents, spammers, creeps and just plain-ole trouble starters out there. I can certainly understand why a media outlet might choose to turn off comments.

There are plenty of open forums on the Net for free speech, if people wish to express their personal views.

VernonWalter

Reuters simply gave up and are doing it the cheap way. Moderating and banning accounts is perfectly logical and will clean up a good number of the issues. The NYT has, by most accounts, a highly worthwhile commenting system and community. It also seems quite hands-on (moderated) and timely (comments get closed), meaning it’s not impossible to do. Granted, I don’t know if the NYT is losing money on this, but I’d be willing to bet a large swath of readership wants the comments community, and just might leave if it got 86’d. Basically, I’m saying it’s a cheap move, and ignorant of the opportunity being missed.

Jeff John Roberts

In the case of Reuters, I think part of it might be cost considerations but also a bias against digital platforms in general. When I worked there in 2010-2011, I was confounded by the almost proud ignorance of internet publishing on the part of many senior editors. In this worldview, there is something almost second-rate or scurrilous about online communities — which in turn led them to neglect the comment section, and to treat the inevitable trolls that did appear as confirmation of their bias.

Jason Lopez

“…those relationships are the key to whatever monetization opportunities you might have, whether it’s real-world events or subscription products.” I sentimentally agree with you Mathew, but this argument would be much stronger with an example that supports it. I haven’t found any. ESPN had arguably the largest vocal community commenting on stories. Stories would easily get 5,000 comments in a day. The counter would cut off after that so many stories could easily amass 20k and up. ESPN tried and could not figure out how to monetize it. Little if any of what Internet gurus back in 2006 said would happen happened: adding to stories with crowdsourced knowledge, product reviews and recommendations, etc. I have no idea what ESPN gets out of handing over its comments platform to Facebook, but apparently ESPN feels it has nothing to worry about alerting FB users that a conversation they’re engaged in on an ESPN story has a new reply.

jjj

Reuters comments were almost non-existent ,they should have done more to encourage them.
Reuters also makes a lot of mistakes and they could use some corrections from users.
Guess they are just too lazy to try to innovate and evolve.

Max S

There are plenty of good philosophical arguments for why online news outlets should have comment sections. But the Nasty Effect cannot be ignored, and is a big reason why hard news outlets are moving away from hosting their own comment sections. In short, there is good research out of UW-Madison that has demonstrated that the presence of trolls in online comment sections directly influences readers. Specifically, uncivil comments create a polarizing atmosphere in which readers perceive more bias in the article. The public perception that Reuters is a reliable source of news is put at risk by comment sections if the conversation gets out of hand.

Here’s the primary article:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jcc4.12009/abstract

Here’s an LA times piece (no comment section): http://articles.latimes.com/2013/mar/07/opinion/la-oe-daum-comments-nasty-effect-20130307

Max Sellman

(Same Max S. as above here)
Thanks for responding Mathew-
I agree with you that it says something about Reuters…that they are not in the business of facilitating discussion of news. Reuters is focused on producing news messages and getting them into as many different media sources as possible. Online audience discussion cannot possibly improve their bottom line or quality of reporting. Basically, Reuters doesn’t need to care what people think of their articles, as long as they are selling and written up to their journalistic standards. Keeping control of your message is a top priority in any communication situation, and Reuters has decided that this is the most cost-effective way to keep control of their messages.

I am curious why you don’t think the research is compelling? It is good, peer-reviewed science from researchers at the very top of their field. The article you wrote and linked to basically takes the position that there are instances where online comments could be valuable, so websites should keep them. You didn’t cite any research at all, only anecdotal evidence (which is irresponsible to use when making a policy decision).

I agree that comment sections CAN be valuable (look here, we’re having a civil disagreement). But in the absence of moderation, the research indicates that you would be leaving the perception of your message up to the anonymous internet at large. That wouldn’t be an issue for this site, as you seem to take a lot of time to read, respond to, and moderate comments. But if a company doesn’t want to invest the resources into moderation of a commenter community, doesn’t it seem like a no-brainer to get rid of the section entirely? I think it is a bit presumptuous to assume that Reuters, PopSci, etc don’t look at the costs and benefits and determine that they stand to lose a lot more by keeping the comments section than they stand to gain.

Mathew Ingram

Thanks, Max — one of the reasons I don’t find the research compelling was mentioned by Science editor Noah Grey in a response that I linked to in the post I referred to above: the study really just shows that people who were already inclined against a particular viewpoint became somewhat more inclined against it after reading comments. That’s not exactly earth-shattering news, nor does it mean that comments somehow aren’t scientifically worthwhile.

As far as the costs are concerned, the point I was trying to make is that there are much longer-term costs involved in getting rid of comments — a cost to an outlet’s brand value and the goodwill associated with it, but also a cost in terms of handing over a large part of the value of that relationship with readers to Twitter and Facebook. I doubt Reuters factored either of those into its equations.

Rarian Rakista

Which is why I am surprised that Slashdot’s style of online comment moderation which only allows veteran users who themselves are highly rated by the community moderate comments, and then only with a limited amount of positive/negative votes hasn’t been tried elsewhere.

Giving everyone endless moderation abilities hasn’t turned out well.

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