On Tuesday, NPR followed through with a much-discussed decision to abolish its story-page comments in favor of social media, joining a growing list of publishers including The Toronto Star, Vice’s Motherboard, Mic and Reuters.
The recent closures are an indicator of a troubling trend that signals detachment on the part of news organizations when it comes to reader engagement, said Andrew Losowsky, the journalist who’s spearheading The Coral Project, a multi-newsroom effort to overhaul online communities.
“The way that most news organizations treat their on-site comments — with reluctance, disdain, and a lack of resources — they should either change their approach, or join NPR in closing their comments,” Losowsky said. “Much better than hosting a permanent garbage fire.”
To prevent newsrooms from joining the likes of NPR by completely shutting down website comments, Losowsky and his team are working on innovative ways to redefine user engagement using open-source technology and discussion. The reason? Losowsky says on-site comments are a place to build "lasting, meaningful relationships" and even establish revenue possibilities if they're approached in the right way.
NPR's stated reason for axing the comments was mainly that commenters were not an adequate representation of their reader base, not because of the garbage fire. Only 1 percent of its 25 to 35 million unique monthly visitors were commenting on the story pages, and 2,600 people had posted a comment regularly in each of the last three months.
NPR’s ombudsman, Elizabeth Jensen, acknowledged that the number of complaints were growing in response to censorship by external moderators and flame wars. Losowsky agrees that abuse and trolling are serious issues for editors but thinks the uncivil conversations are a symptom of a larger problem.
“I completely understand why most journalists don't want to engage with the comments on their stories — many comment sections are filled with insults,” he said. "However, the larger problem, is that newsrooms don't have a sense of why they even have a comments section and how it might connect to their journalistic mission.”
The solution? Rather than build higher walls to keep responses away — or outsourcing all discussion to social media — journalists should develop better tools, filters and reasons to engage, Losowsky said.
“To move all responsibility for reader relationships to platforms that the newsroom cannot control is a shortsighted move that will cost them in the medium-to-long term,” he said. “Social media platforms control the tools, the relationship, the information and the access — all of the things that newsrooms need to own themselves in order to sustain a meaningful relationship beyond a single tweet or Facebook reply. The unit of measurement is not the comment — it's the commenter.”
To prevent newsrooms from depending on social media platforms for user interaction, Losowsky hopes to transform the notion of the comments box as a “noisy machine in the corner of the newsroom that constantly spits out oil and grease, whose mess editors are cleaning up without wondering what it really does.”
“Every commenter is not a troll,” he said. “If journalism is going to survive, it needs to connect more closely with those who care about it the most. We need more newsrooms to join us in our effort. There’s plenty of work to do.”