How journalists can turn their stories into conversations

Social media have made it easier than ever for journalists to engage their readers in conversation. They’ve also changed the way we think about other, “nonsocial” media.

Maybe that’s why many journalists have given up on monitoring our comment sections. The philosophical justification goes something like this: Journalists can’t justifiably restrict the free speech of their readers while relying on it for their work. The practical argument is more pessimistic: Resources are limited now more than ever, and journalists can’t afford to invest in comment sections without guaranteed returns.

The alternative model has been popularized by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who blogs at The Atlantic. There, he gives his blog away to his readers several times a week (“It’s yours…”), but not before insisting that they live up to a civil standard. Even so, these 13-character posts routinely attract hundreds of insightful comments. Coates also maintains a book club. He crowd-sources stories. He even landed one of his commenters a job as a correspondent for The Atlantic. Unlike other social media, comment sections build strong reader loyalty. So where do we start?

Cultivate an inquisitive culture that appreciates doubt

Arrogance and assertions stifle conversation. Intellectual honesty is comprised of many questions and few certainties, and sincere commenters should be comfortable admitting their ignorance (“talk to me like I’m stupid”). This demonstrates vulnerability, which other commenters are likely to exploit unless a moderator intervenes. Your readers are relying on you to foster a safe environment for them.

Once readers trust their peers, more questions will be asked, smart conversations will be struck and intimate relationships will be built that bring readers back for more. Over time, they will become stakeholders in this new community and uphold its values themselves. Readers will visit your website because of other readers. But you need to set an example for them first.

Reader-driven websites like Reddit and Quora are developing grassroots models for knowledge dissemination, and journalists should take notice. Redditors keep themselves in line with a harsh social code, whereas Quora employs moderators who help guide discussion, encourage curiosity and positively reinforce good behavior.

Commenters reflect content

Sensationalistic headlines attract sensationalistic readers. If you don’t like your commenters’ attitudes, you should consider what’s bringing them to your website and making them feel the way they do. Your product could be part of the problem.

Journalists are not to blame for everything that happens in their comment sections, but they are responsible for the behavior they allow to persist. If it’s on your website, you own it. The content you publish sets a rhetorical standard, and your readers should be held to it.

When Apple unveiled its iPhone 5 earlier this month, CNET covered the event with a live blog that put readers, who were anxiously speculating and asking questions, in the same discursive space as writers, who were posting photos and updates from the event while responding to readers’ requests. Tearing down the wall between readers and reporters shows our consumers that we expect them to produce too. Commenters reflect content because in this new model comments are content.

Restrict attitudes, not words

Banning hate speech and four letter words is not enough. Determining what merits deletion and more severe discipline will require discretion. You will make mistakes, and that’s okay. Identifying strawman arguments, leading questions, misleading statements and tangential topics is not an exact science, yet these things don’t belong in constructive comment sections. Determining how many strikes gets a commenter banned is also up to you, but a strict policy should be enforced. Anything ad hominem is unacceptable, as are intellectual dishonesty and intimidation. Lots of people will fail to follow these rules, and even productive commenters will need occasional reminders.

Ignoring readers is a luxury of privileged writers at prominent news organizations. The best examples of reader engagement are often found on independent blogs — where it’s an existential matter, not abstract policy. John Scalzi has been blogging at Whatever for over a decade, where he literally teaches his readers how to be good commenters. His comment policy is broad in its scope and subjectivity:

A good rule of thumb is to comment as if the person to whom you are commenting is standing in front of you, is built like a linebacker, and has both a short temper and excellent legal representation.

One-time fixes won’t substitute for regular maintenance

When Talking Points Memo switched to Facebook’s commenting system earlier this year, Josh Marshall wrote that he hoped restricting anonymity would instill a new sense of accountability in the website’s commenters, whose posts would be tied directly to their identities:

Out in the real public square, the fact that people know who we are places some limits on how abusive, disruptive or anti-social we might be. The commenting world has very little of that. And it shows.

That logic makes sense, yet it didn’t affect dramatic change. Associating readers’ real-life identities with their comments largely failed to discourage abusive behavior.

Coates echoed the same finding last month on Reddit, adding that identity mandates might put some readers in danger: “One problem is you immediately get into a situation of dudes stalking [a]nd harassing women.”

It’s difficult to anticipate how commenters will react to policy change. Commenting policy is an ongoing experiment within and between news organizations. Whether participation in that experiment happens on the company-wide or individual level, it requires meaningful interaction with readers. Authors should be adding value to their comment sections by engaging readers as they remove detracting posts.

Coates says he spends at least as much time moderating his blog and talking with readers as he does writing for it. That formula may be different for other media. Some may find interns capable of fulfilling that responsibility. Most importantly, any kind of commitment is better than laissez-faire disregard.

Being a 21st century journalist means curating news. It should also mean curating comments. News media have the means to offer an alternative to political polarization — an opportunity to carve out a rhetorical space where substantial and civil conversation dominates. And when journalists invite readers into their professional homes to talk, they get to set the rules.

As Coates put it, “This is not a lunch room. This is a dinner party. Conduct yourselves accordingly.”

Tyler Borchers is a junior studying communication in Ohio University’s Honors Tutorial College. He recently completed a publishing internship at Talking Points Memo. You can follow him on his blog and on Twitter.

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  • Anonymous

    That is super cool. I forgot my laptop when I went to my mom’s house this weekend, and I remember immediately thinking “there should be a better way to check all of my social media than logging in and out of each one.” I’m glad to see that there is :)

  • Abdallah Al-Hakim

    Certainly!! Briefly, engagio ( does two major things. First, it brings your social conversations from across the fragmented social web into one inbox. Second, it allows you to search and discover articles, individuals and sites based on the conversations swirling around them. What’s neat about engagio is that it focuses on the conversation stream and not the entire ‘firehose’. This drastically improves the signal to noise ratio and helps you focus on the person behind the conversation. Let me know when you sign up and we can connect on engagio (it is free service!). I work for engagio and would love to hear what you think.

  • Tyler Borchers

    OMG! I’ve yet to try out Engagio, but I’ve been hearing the name lately. Can you tell me more about it?

  • Abdallah Al-Hakim

    Fred Wilson is a well known venture capitalist investing in internet startups. His blog is a great resource for many entrepreneurs but it is really the community that makes it a must visit on my daily schedule. A cool fact – the company I am working for at the moment, Engagio, was inspired in part by the comments made by the AVC community

  • Tyler Borchers

    I couldn’t agree more about that Scalzi quotation. When I first read it, I immediately inserted it into this piece because I thought it was perfect. It helps to remind people that there are human beings behind the avatars they talk to on the internet.

  • Tyler Borchers

    Hi, Abdallah! Sorry for the tardiness of my reply. It’s been a crazy day at school. I’m not familiar with Fred Wilson, so I’m excited to check out his blog! Thanks for sharing, and I’m glad we could swap our favorite bloggers :)

  • William Mougayar

    Hi Tyler, This is a golden advice “A good rule of thumb is to comment as if the person to whom you are commenting is standing in front of you” to help maintain the quality level of comments.

    I’ve always thought that each comment is an implicit link to a person and to a hidden relationship potential behind it.

    I’m surprised that not too many authors become active enough in their commenting sections so as to start nurturing it into a real vibrant community.

  • Abdallah Al-Hakim

    Terrific article. I will definitely be checking out Scalzi and Coates articles from now on!!
    Spending time to moderate your blog and actively engaging with readers is the first step to build a community. Once a solid community is built then it will self-police itself. One such example is Fred Wilson’s blog. There are usually an average of 200 comments per day but almost each one is worth reading and many of the commenters are repeat visitors. For blog writers, engaging and moderating your comment section is one of the best investments you can make.