Instead of killing comments, we should be trying to fix them

Every month or so, it seems, a media outlet decides to get rid of their comments. The latest is The Week, which follows Reuters and Re/code, both of whom shut down their comments recently. Every outlet that does this says the same thing: conversation has moved to social media, etc. But as New York Times staffer Mat Yurow argues in a post at Medium, this argument is essentially a cop-out. Comments need to be fixed, not killed.

In its post about shutting down comments, The Week says that “in the age of social media, the smartest and most vibrant reader conversations have moved off of news sites and onto Facebook and Twitter.” But even if this is the case — which I’m not disputing — whose fault is that? Most sites have done virtually nothing to try and make their comment sections a more hospitable place for smart and vibrant discussion, so why wouldn’t it go elsewhere?

The Week piece also says that the site has “a deep respect for the intelligence and opinions of our readers.” But not enough respect, apparently, to allow those readers to post their thoughts about its articles on the same page where those articles appear.

Instead, readers are forced to try and track down the writers and editors of the magazine on various social networks and then do their best to find the conversation about whatever article they are interested in, and then convince someone on the staff to engage with them. What many news outlets seem to mean by the discussion “moving to Twitter and Facebook” is that it’s much easier to ignore.

Engagement equals value

Yurow, by contrast — who works on the audience development team at the New York Times, and before that worked for Huffington Post and Bloomberg — believes as I do that handing over a key component of your relationship with readers to Twitter and Facebook is a mistake. Not only does it give up something valuable, but it suggests to readers that their comments and interaction aren’t worth the trouble:

“To simply give up, and hand our most engaged users over to Facebook and Twitter is a major loss to a industry that is in dire need of loyalty. We need to come up with real, sustainable solutions?—?solutions that view community through the lens of modern culture, technology and business. It is imperative that we save comments. We owe it to our readers, we owe it to our writers, and we owe it to ourselves.”

Comments are broken, Yurow argues, because most publications have not put the time or resources into trying to make them work, and so they have become troll and spam-filled backwaters that everyone tries to avoid. But that’s not the fault of readers — it’s the fault of publishers for not seeing their relationship with their readers as being of value. So how can this perception of comments be turned around? Yurow outlines several ways in his post.

For one thing, media sites could look at the actual return on investment that they get from engaging with readers — which is real, and can be measured. It’s easier for sites with subscriptions to do this, since they can track how many commenters eventually “convert” into being subscribers. But it’s not that hard to tie reader time spent with things that matter to your business, whether it’s advertising or something else. As Yurow points out:

“Commenters do (at least) two things most site visitors do not: they explicitly demonstrate interest in your product, and they willingly hand over their email address. In any other business, we’d call these people ‘warm leads.’ In media, we call them trolls.”

Readers deserve our time

The other key point I agree with Yurow on is that many sites are to blame for their own troll-filled comments, because their writers and editors fail to engage even with the intelligent commenters, and so the predictable happens — flame-wars and offensive behavior take over. As blogger Anil Dash pointed out in a post in 2011, if there is bad behavior in your comments then you as the site owner are partially to blame. Yurow notes:

“It is important that some action is taken to remind readers that their voice is being heard. This can come in the form of a featured comment, a short response, or even a strategic email or tweet. Will this completely stop belligerence at the bottom of the page? Absolutely not. But it will help set the expectation of civil discourse and conversation.”

Among other things, Yurow also suggests that publishers try to figure out some way to make comments more relevant for more readers — whether it’s by having editors and writers highlight or point out interesting comments (something Forbes and other sites such as Gigaom already do), or by using algorithms and other tools such as reader votes to surface the best, something the New York Times itself has experimented with in the past.