Don't outsource your community

Guardian digital editor is right — ending comments is a mistake

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No one seems to like web comments any more, at least not in the traditional media anyway. Websites like Reuters and Re/code and Popular Science and Bloomberg have gotten rid of them, and plenty of media insiders have been cheering this movement on, since they see comment sections as cesspools. So it’s nice to hear someone like Guardian digital editor Aron Pilhofer say killing off comments is a “monumental mistake.”

In a talk at the News:Rewired conference in London, Pilhofer — who used to run the digital team at the New York Times, before joining the Guardian last year — said that many traditional newsrooms are failing to take full advantage of the web’s ability to create a two-way relationship with readers, and that this is a crucial element of what journalism has become in a digital age. As he put it:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”I feel very strongly that digital journalism needs to be a conversation with readers. This is one, if not the most important area of emphasis that traditional newsrooms are actually ignoring. You see site after site killing comments and moving away from community – that’s a monumental mistake…. readers need and deserve a voice. They should be a core part of your journalism.”[/blockquote]

Open journalism

Pilhofer talked about how the Guardian looks at its audience, which is as a partner in its journalism, through projects like Guardian Witness — a site where readers can suggest story ideas and also become involved in the reporting of them — which emerged from its repeated experiments in “crowdsourcing.” For the British paper, the concept of “open journalism” as a dialogue between reporters and readers has been a central part of its mandate under outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger.

paidContent Live 2013 Alan Rusbridger Editor in Chief The Guardian
Alan Rusbridger, Editor in Chief, The Guardian paidContent Live 2013 Albert Chau /

The fact that I agree whole-heartedly with Pilhofer probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been reading Gigaom over the past few years: I’ve argued repeatedly that real and ongoing engagement with readers — which involves more than just a passive “Here’s our content, please click on it” kind of relationship — is a crucial part of what journalism is now, in part because this trusted relationship with readers is the only real asset that media companies have left to monetize in an increasingly competitive landscape.

Projects like Guardian Witness are the kinds of things that all media companies should be doing more of, Pilhofer said, because reader engagement is “a huge resource we are largely ignoring” as an industry. That’s the bottom line: not so much whether a newspaper or news site has comments or not, but whether it is trying to reach out to its readers in any real way and make them part of its journalism. Or do they just see the audience as a giant click factory?

All readers matter

Whenever I try to make this point, someone inevitably says that of course they want to have a relationship with their readers, but comments aren’t the way to do it, because they are just a cesspool of bad behavior — and/or because the people who post in the comments aren’t their real readers, as Bloomberg editor Joshua Topolsky argued in an interview about the site’s redesign:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”You’re really talking about less than one percent of the overall audience that’s engaged in commenting, even if it looks like a very active community. In the grand scheme of the audience, it doesn’t represent the readership.”[/blockquote]

Community generic

Topolsky’s is a common response to comments: “Those people aren’t our real readers, so we can afford to ignore them, and pay attention only to the people who choose to be on the social networks that we frequent, like Twitter and Facebook.” But what about the people who don’t want to have their comments tied to their identity on Facebook — or the readers who choose not to belong to those social networks at all? They in effect become second-class citizens, whose opinions or input aren’t wanted or valued.

Comments can have value

On top of that problem, the readers who are on those networks still have to seek out the commentary on the stories they are interested in discussing. Tools exist to pull responses from Twitter and Facebook back into a comment section on a news site, but few publishers use them. It seems that most would rather outsource their commenting — and by extension, their relationship with their readers — to these third-party networks.

But comments are unfixable, right? Or at least, without spending huge amounts of time and resources on them. That’s another common response when anyone proposes that they not be killed off. But some sites have shown that it is possible to improve them without an enormous resource commitment: Digiday wrote recently about how comments at Salon improved dramatically once someone started to pay attention to them, and took a few steps to encourage good behavior.

Comments aren’t the ultimate expression of community or a relationship with readers by any means. Social networks are also very powerful tools in different ways. But if you can’t figure out how to engage with your readers and build a community of some kind on your own website — around your own content — how can you expect any of your readers to take your commitment to that relationship seriously?

18 Responses to “Guardian digital editor is right — ending comments is a mistake”

  1. Nathan Hughes

    I completely agree! Also, when an artical is open to comments, the author is accountable to what is written.
    Many times i read anartical and only in the comments section do i learn that the artical was a hoax or there were mistakes or even more information from an anonymous witness.

  2. Dan Gayle

    Our newspaper made a few changes to our comments that dramatically increased the quality and reduced the amount of moderation needed. First, we put the comments on their own page, separate from the story. This really helps in neutralizing the tone of the comments, because people don’t conflate the boorish comments with the actual journalism. Second, we only allow comments on local stories or stories that touch local reader’s lives. (So mostly, no comments on wire stories.) These two changes really made a huge difference in the thoughtfulness and give and take from the reporters and readers.

  3. Anonymous

    I work in the commenting/forum/community space. The tools that you refer to for pulling in responses from Twitter and Facebook, which Livefyre calls SocialSync, are offered in both Livefyre’s enterprise commenting platform and in the free product, Community Comments. Anyone can add this feature to their own blog, and there are some professional journalism sites that run Community Comments. The software is out there and available to anyone.

  4. The Guardian as had colossal growth in the last 5 years, now online in the USA and Australia. In the UK its looked upon as a leftie intellectual newspaper, but why is it so popular, well it does not have a paywall and it is open and embraces a healthy comment debate. At times the comments section can be more interesting and insightful than the actual article or post.

  5. turnerwfu

    I honestly do not always trust some outlets that don’t have comments–what are you worried that users will post and point out? I love reading articles and seeing a commenter thoroughly undress the author for bias/oversight/mistakes. Rather than make me not want to read the news source, it makes me trust it, because I trust the readership and believe that the media outlet has brought together a community which holds each other accountable.

    On the other hand, many comments are still appreciated even when they agree with the article. I love seeing people provide touching personal stories that resonate with the article, or provide additional reading for people who enjoyed reading the article. This is a community! As someone who is very busy, I am trying to prune down the things I read, and I prioritize those that give me bank for my buck–those that will give me a lot of views, not just 1, when I read the article. That’s a community I want to be a part of, and ultimately contribute to.

    Side note: Doesn’t require the author of article to participate, though that is always appreciated. The community feeds itself when moderated appropriately.

  6. Obelisk1

    The Guardian, however, is not honest in its posture on readers’ comments. It routinely censors comments where the views expressed do not comport with Guardian prejudices; it summarily deletes comments which do nothing more than ask awkward questions.

    I have largely given up commenting there – all it does is add to the click-count on a paper I would rather see go broke.

  7. TimeKeeper

    Aaaand Mathew does not continue the conversation in the comments section… This is why comments are still a one way conversation and not two way as they should be. Engage the people who took the time to read your article and comment on it.

  8. Joshua Bristol

    Thanks for this! The first thing I do is read the comments after reading an article. If there are no comments I feel like where’s the relevancy? Does anyone care about this or does it affect anyone? What’s the takeaway here? Articles without comments exist in a void and I don’t feel like I read anything at all…

    Whew leaving a comment on an article about comments is kinda’ meta!

  9. Also, people who comment on social media are less likely to have read the article before commenting, or to have not read it period. If you keep comments on your site, then you are more likely to get useful comments than from social media, as people who comment on the site itself have cared enough to actually read it, rather than judging the article by its title.

  10. Comments at Salon didn’t improve so much as Salon decided they could ban enough people so that comments reflected the message they intended to push.

    Comments are valuable and should be kept. Journos and their editors should be encouraged to interact with readers in the comments.

    Comment sections like Salon’s which actively hate on dissenting views silencing them encourage and incite the nastiness we see on social media and in so many comment arenas.

  11. Anonymous

    “Tools exist to pull responses from Twitter and Facebook back into a comment section on a news site, but few publishers use them. ” – Isn’t that because they are WAY to expensive? (I assume we’re talking about LiveFyre and their ilk… maybe the biggies can afford that, but all the organizations I’ve worked for don’t have the resources to allocate to this.

  12. Anonymous

    Joshua Topolsky is a complete idiot. Yes, the comments are not reflective of your entire readership. They’re reflective of your most committed readership. The ones who care enough to correct your misinformation, which protects your image. The ones willing to share more information on a situation – which allows you to expand your story. The ones who end up sharing your story with others. Your biggest “word of mouth” asset.

    There’s a thousand places to go for news – and if you think news is what you say, rather than what the people say, then I’ll simply take my time and spend it elsewhere.

    Almost reminds me of “Dear Games Journalists: Gamers are not your audience”. Completely asinine.