When the Los Angeles Times redesigned its website earlier this year, it became harder to find the opinions of people like iamstun1, jumped2, and Shootist.

Those are the screen names of some Times readers who are among the most prolific authors of online comments. Their writings, like the rest of the reader comments, no longer appear at the bottom of stories on latimes.com.

Instead, comments for each article remain hidden unless users click on an icon along the right side of the screen.

Screenshot from latimes.com
Screenshot from latimes.com

That opens a separate page where readers can peruse the thoughts of iamstun1 on the federal budget bill (“Republicans really are scums”), jumped2 on the Senate torture investigation (“EVERYONE involved in releasing the CIA report and harming our Military should be tried for TREASON and HUNG”), and Shootist on a flash flood that damaged homes and forced evacuations throughout Southern California (“couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch of pantywaists”).

The change, part of a major overhaul of latimes.com in May, reflects a trend among news websites. Many are moving reader comments onto separate pages, or – in a few cases – eliminating them entirely, often because of concerns about their acerbic content.

“Everyone in the industry has struggled with how to handle comments,” said Times Deputy Managing Editor Megan Garvey. In a phone interview, she said the latimes.com change was designed to create a “more discrete reading experience.”

“If you want to participate with the comments, you can open them up and you can spend your time there,” Garvey said. “But if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t read comments, you can just read the story in peace.”

Politico, The New York Times, and USA Today also have de-emphasized reader comments in their most recent site redesigns. Each site now requires readers to click a small “speech balloon” icon to see comments from other readers or add their own.

“They’re saying if you really want to read the comments, you’ll have to go a little bit out of your way,” said University of Houston Communications Professor Arthur Santana, who studies the evolution of website comment forums. “They really are worried that (comments) are bringing down the brand identity of the news organization.”

“The worst of humankind”

Santana, a former writer and editor at The Washington Post and San Antonio Express-News, bemoans what comment sections have become at many news websites – forums for name calling, hate speech, and off-topic political rants.

In a study planned for publication this spring in the Newspaper Research Journal, he examined comments about Arizona’s 2010 immigration law on latimes.com, as well as the websites of The Arizona Republic and Houston Chronicle. He found that just over half included threats, attacks, slurs, or vulgarities.

“These commenting forums are very much a cesspool of incivility, racism, and sexism,” Santana said in a phone interview. “It’s just the worst of humankind.”

That nastiness has led a handful of news websites to eliminate comments entirely. The Chicago Sun-Times temporarily discontinued comments in April, lamenting that they had devolved into “an embarrassing mishmash of fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing.” (Comments have since returned to some Sun-Times articles, hidden behind a speech-balloon icon.) Popular Science killed comments last September, and Reuters eliminated them a few weeks ago on all stories except opinion columns.

“It didn’t feel like it was such a fit anymore,” said Reuters Digital Executive Editor Dan Colarusso, who directed readers instead to take their comments to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

“Our site is about the biggest stories in the world being presented in a rational way,” he said in a phone interview.

At the L.A. Times, Garvey said vitriol infiltrated reader forums not only on controversial stories, but sometimes on features and even obituaries. In addition to segregating the comments onto separate pages, she said the Times is moderating them on certain stories, while choosing to not open comment forums on others.

Still, Garvey said the Times isn’t planning to get rid of reader comments.

“We have certain very heavy users who spend a lot of time commenting,” she said. “The question is do you want to alienate people who spend a lot of time on our site …. These are people who are paying to read us.”

A continuing evolution

The Times said it heard little reaction from readers about the change once their initial confusion about the site redesign wore off. Reuters, which allowed reader comments on its decision to eliminate comments, got a mixed reaction. It ranged from a complaint that the news agency is trying to “silence the people” to a reader who agreed with the decision and asked, “Why maintain a trash heap?”

Santana, the Houston professor, sees the latest changes as part of a continuing evolution of online reader forums, which date back to the early days of the web.

“Newspapers allowed commenting forums, and almost immediately regretted it,” he said.

Santana said about half the nation’s largest 137 newspapers have banned anonymous comments, a strategy that can greatly reduce incivility, according to his research. Some sites also screen each message prior to publication or provide tools that encourage the online community to police itself.

Yet despite the angst comments cause and the resources they require, most editors are hesitant to eliminate them. (Santana found fewer than ten percent of large newspapers lack online forums.) They attract users, remain an important tool for reader engagement, and – in between the bile – still feature some productive conversations.

“A lot of people may not like them, but are comforted by the fact that they exist,” Santana said. “The idea of silencing the community by killing the forum might turn off the reader.

“Nobody quite has figured it out yet. It’s an imperfect system all the way around.”