Can reporters help repair online comment sections?

Several years ago during a seminar at Poynter, we were talking about engaging our audiences.

“We ask our readers and viewers to comment on our stories,” one participant said, “but unless we respond to them, how will they know we’re listening?

“Their assumption,” he said, “is that we’re not.”

In the years since, I’ve heard from a lot of journalists who confirm that, indeed, they’re not listening. They don’t read users’ comments for a variety of reasons: no time, no interest, no stomach for the cesspools they often find there.

Meanwhile, I’ve heard other journalists and newsroom leaders say that journalism’s future requires a different, more interactive relationship with the audience, one in which people outside the newsroom share their expertise and engage in productive debate. That’s how democracies thrive.

Which brings us back to those cursed Web comments sections. What can be done to make more of them places for productive debate?

Three ideas I hear most often are these:

  • Comments need to be moderated.
  • Comments sections need to be more than fenced-off areas for the public to talk among themselves. They need to be part of a newsroom’s coverage strategy.
  • Reporters and editors need to participate in the conversation.

For starters, moderation. Conversations on websites that moderate comments tend to be more substantial and less venomous. So why aren’t more comments sections moderated?

Money, of course. Many newsrooms have decided they don’t have the resources to invest in good comments sections. A few are “deputizing” members of the public to police comments, and the verdict is still out. The others? Well, as my mother would say, you get what you pay for.

Does your newsroom moderate comments?

Often, the same newsrooms that don’t moderate also lack a strategy for comments — beyond the idea that news organizations have an obligation to make space available for a public forum. Like abandoned properties, comments sections without strategies quickly become neglected and fall into disrepair. The best comments sections reflect a plan for hearing the public, benefiting from its expertise and promoting meaningful discussions of issues.

Does your newsroom have a serious strategy for comments?

A third contributor to better comments sections — especially when accompanied by moderation — is the involvement of reporters and editors in the conversations. But talk about a hard sell.

Yes, newsroom staffs are handling more responsibilities than ever. And this does amount to new work. But the truth is, most journalists have never been anxious to mix it up with the public. Newspaper editors and reporters for years responded to unhappy readers with one, or both, of these scripted responses: “We stand behind our story,” and “Why don’t you write a letter to the editor?”

And remember the reaction to publishing reporters’ email addresses at the end of stories? As that debate unfolded, I remember becoming increasingly uncomfortable that we who demanded unlimited access to those we were covering, wanted desperately to limit anyone’s access to us.

Today, we publish reporters’ email addresses, are (generally) more willing to look into complaints and publish far more contributions from our readers and viewers, at least their comments. And slowly, a growing number of newsrooms are requiring or strongly encouraging reporters and editors to wade into those comments and talk with the users who post them.

One such newsroom is the Financial Times. Sarah Laitner, the London-based newsroom’s communities editor, told me during a recent visit to Poynter about the FT’s efforts to involve reporters in the comments sections, and the results they’ve seen. The FT moderates comments. They are part of a strategy, as is the desire for the journalists to participate in them. Sarah is quick to point out that the effort is evolving, but she says the FT already has seen benefits.

Here is a Q&A I conducted with Sarah and her colleague, social media journalist Maija Palmer:

Ward: The FT has embarked on a serious effort to have its reporters engage readers in the comments section on articles on your website. Why? What role does that play in the FT’s strategy?

Laitner: Readers’ comments on our site inform us, reward us and often surprise us. The comment box is a space in which readers can agree, disagree, foster connections with each other and challenge us. When our journalists join in, they show that we listen and have our readers in mind. This is particularly important for a subscription site such as ft.com.

When I comment online, I’m usually thrilled if a journalist or fellow poster answers me, and I hope my colleagues are able to provoke the same reaction in their readers.

Palmer: I think the way that journalism is conducted is changing. In many cases, there is a lot we can learn from our readers who can be real experts in particular subjects. We should be moving more to taking suggestions from readers on what we are covering. Some journalists have found that one astute comment under their story can provide the starting point for another article.

Ward: Specifically, what have you asked FT’s reporters to do with online comments? Is it a mandate or a suggestion?

Laitner: We have asked our colleagues to read the comments on their ft.com stories and we strongly encourage them to reply. We know everyone is busy, but we do ask them to take a few minutes to review comments on their stories from the past 24 hours. We don’t expect them to respond to everyone and it doesn’t have to be at length, but we do want to show that we are listening.

A great example of reader interaction is on FT Alphaville, our finance and markets blog, where our journalists chat to their loyal band of readers pretty much all the time, and know them well. Our UK personal finance team talks to readers through its live Q&A series. Here’s a recent example, featuring the British pensions minister: http://on.ft.com/18HdhDi

Palmer: Our columnists regularly answer the comments under their articles and often can end up in debate with readers. It can be enjoyable and it has raised the level of the comments a great deal.

Laitner: Our news editors also have become more involved in comment threads, which helps to spread the load.

Ward: How are you communicating the effort about engaging with readers’ comments on ft.com and the strategy behind it?

Laitner: The message has come from the top, from the editor. Training sessions with me and Maija, emails, blog posts and water cooler moments also help to get the message across. We explain the value of reader interaction and point out the benefits of getting to know readers who may be experts in their fields. We also try to share examples of when conversations with readers can be really helpful for the journalist. Here’s one such case: http://blogs.ft.com/ft-long-short/2013/08/13/the-cape-of-less-hope/

Web traffic is another incentive. Our homepage has a box featuring “best comments” from our readers. We invite our journalists to make suggestions for the homepage box. If a comment posted on their story appears in the box, their article usually has a surge in traffic.

Also, Maija and I try to show our journalists how effective timely and judicious use of Twitter can get the ball rolling in traffic and commenting.

Ward: What was the reporters’ reaction to the new work? How did management respond to the response?

Laitner: As with any new initiative, some people take to it readily and others need more persuasion. We point out that reading comments can improve colleagues’ knowledge of their beats and potentially lead them to make new sources.

At the same time, I think it helps if you recognize your colleagues’ concerns. We want to protect our journalists from the abuse and unpleasantness that comes with some online comments, especially on topics that stir strong emotions or opinions. Even the thickest-skinned of colleagues can be unsettled by hostile comments. We try to help by intervening in comment threads and acting against fiery users who verbally abuse our journalists. We also remind colleagues that commenters tend to write criticism more than they do praise, but if you foster a community then readers will stand up for you and intervene against hostile types.

We have found that if our journalists and moderators intervene early in uncivil threads then the decorum tends to improve. In some cases, we simply need to accept that a civil debate isn’t possible and close the thread instead.

Ward: Can you point to any results this effort has produced? Have your readers noticed?

Laitner: Yes. We have received story ideas, picked up readers’ dislikes and raised the tone of some debates on our site. And readers have noticed our efforts. One (Ex NHS Surgeon) wrote recently: “The beauty of FT is not so much the articles themselves, but the treasure trove in the comments. Not that I can pretend to understand more than a fraction of the total.” And another (@khakieconomist) wrote: “I really like that the @FT puts top reader comments on the front page. Creates a real incentive to make worthwhile comments. Why not copied?”

We are curious about our commenters on ft.com, many of whom post using pseudonyms. My colleague, Lisa Pollack, head of new projects, had the great idea of a survey to ask them what they thought about our commenting functions. She dipped into comment threads and posted a link to our questions. Several readers told us to “keep up the good work,” which was heartening! Respondents expressed appreciation for our journalists who regularly wade into comments to reply to readers and further the discussion. FT Alphaville was mentioned as an example of the right amount of interaction.

Ward: What have you learned from this effort? Would you do anything differently next time? Any advice for other newsrooms?

Laitner: Explain the advantages of going into comment threads; someone who is an expert in their field could be posting on there anonymously and sharing valuable insights.

Remind journalists that it’s a compliment that readers are taking the time to post their views.

Remember that you are dealing with the emotions of your colleagues and your readers. Always try to put yourself in their shoes.

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  • SocraticGadfly

    FT has a “hard” paywall. That screens out more nutty “drive-by” commenters. It also provides more money to not spread staff not quite so thin.