At their worst, the comment sections of media sites are a hellscape representing everything that’s wrong with the internet. There’s a reason “Don’t read the comments” has become memorialized in the public consciousness as a widely-shared meme.
But what happens when that online dictum translates to actual, offline behavior? Multiple newsrooms in the last few years have reduced their online commenting abilities or gotten rid of them altogether. The Philadelphia Inquirer opted to remove comments from most stories in February 2021. NJ.com eliminated comments a year earlier. Many of the biggest legacy media publications, including National Public Radio, Reuters and CNN, haven’t allowed most comments for years.
At the same time, some newspapers temporarily turned off comments only to turn them back on. Larger newspapers like The New York Times have actually invested in online commenting, even allowing readers and staffers to spotlight top picks.
Is the death of online newspaper comments greatly exaggerated? It largely depends on their function. If the goal is for online comments to serve as the primary form of discourse around an article, rather than social media or even external discussion, it’s probably unrealistic. But if the aim is mission-based, that of a newspaper providing a service to their readers, a way for readers to engage with content that at least gives them the appearance of being heard, then online newspaper comments may still have a long future yet.
That’s a compelling argument to Talia Stroud, a University of Texas at Austin professor and director of the Moody College of Communication’s Center for Media Engagement. She’s seen various newspapers get rid of their comments, but it doesn’t leave her with a lasting impression of a general trend.
“Over the years, I’ve heard a number of the ‘comment sections are all going to go away’ arguments, and it has never come to pass,” she said. “I feel like one or two papers or a high-profile organization do it, but there are so many publications out there who are doubling down.”
The argument against comments
The axe for online comments really started to swing during a period in the mid-2010s, when it seemed that a majority of news organizations — from legacy media to the newest of new media — were turning off online comments.
The language in these announcements was sometimes similar, portraying a small group of people taking over a forum meant for the public. They used words like “hijack” and “anarchy.” NPR found that about 0.06% of users actually commented on their website — in July 2016, 491,000 comments came from almost 20,000 commenters.
“Website comments sections are rarely at their best,” wrote Vice’s then-editor-in-chief Jonathan Smith in a statement about the site’s decision to end online commenting. “Without moderators of fancy algorithms, they are prone to anarchy. Too often they devolve into racist, misogynistic maelstroms where the loudest, most offensive, and stupidest opinions get pushed to the top and the more reasoned responses drowned out in the noise.”
The advent of online commenting came with high hopes, as did the advent of the internet. This was a system that could offer democratized online discourse, where everyone’s voice could be heard on an equal level, where access would no longer be an issue. But the emphasis there was on the “could” and “would.” These were lofty dreams, and they never became the reality.
“I’m sure the blending of social media with traditional media had a lot of potential for good, but in many ways, it portents a lot of chances of a very small segment of the readership to co-opt the story,” said Frank Waddell, an associate journalism professor at the University of Florida.
Waddell studies the psychology of online comments. Although a small portion of total news consumers may generate online comments, their behavior can still have a broad impact. This comes down to heuristics, according to Waddell, or mental shortcuts people use when evaluating information. A common heuristic is taking into account what other people think. Whether consciously or not, negative online comments on an article may influence a consumer to think negatively about the outlet or article itself.
“If you see a bunch of individuals online who are leaving negative comments on a news article, you might think most people are evaluating this news as low quality,” Waddell said. “When asked to evaluate the news yourself, you might also think the news is more negative relative to someone who reads that same article without comments.”
If a news organization can’t control the number of negative online comments, is the solution to hope for more positive comments? Not so, Waddell said — data shows that positive online comments are far less effective on public opinion than negative ones.
“While critical comments will always undermine credibility,” he said, “very rarely, if ever, do we see a boost to credibility when the audience is positive.”
But there’s an important flip side to consider — whether or not news outlets choose to play the commenting game, that game will still go on without them. Conversations on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram won’t stop. And the same research premise holds true — negative comments on those platforms will have a negative impact on the outlet’s credibility. So is it better to at least keep one forum where the outlet has control and the potential to monetize commenters into subscribers? And how do we make that forum as good as it can possibly be?
Stroud was first pulled to research on-the-ground commenting practices because of this real tension — comment threads have the potential to be an engaging space and the potential to be, as she puts it, “horrible.”
“I am drawn to the idea of, ‘How can you make this better?’” she said. “And on top of that, it’s just such an important question for newsrooms — when you have finite resources, is this something to invest in or not?”
Those questions in part led Stroud to a collaborative experiment to put online newspaper comments to the test. UT’s Center for Media Engagement partnered with 24 Gannett newsrooms and gave them four options — turn off comments, keep commenting as is, use Coral by Vox Media’s commenting system and use Coral’s commenting system and only allow subscribers to comment.
Newsroom leaders were divided on what they speculated — and hoped — the results of the study would be. Anjanette Delgado, the Detroit Free Press’ senior news director for digital, was firmly of the pro-comments stance.
“My intuition going into it was that there was something better out there,” she said. “I didn’t feel in my gut that turning comments off was the right solution.”
But Brian Smith, The Des Moines Register’s audience growth strategist, who routinely fields his paper’s own comments, had another outcome in mind.
“She was the optimist and I was the skeptic,” Smith said. “I really agreed to be part of the project because I was fed up with comments and I had hoped that the data would show readers didn’t care and there was no benefit.”
The selected Gannett newsrooms had been using Facebook commenting on their site, which rendered it difficult to create relationships with readers and potential subscribers. Having access to registration data for commenters made it easier to foster that.
“There’s more to this than just the editorial quality of the commenting experience,” Delgado said. “There’s a lot of the back-end plumbing of the system that allows us to build a better relationship with readers.”
As one of the newsrooms chosen to turn off comments, Florida Today’s executive editor Mara Bellaby was wary. She expected some reader backlash when she explained the newspaper’s role in Stroud’s experiment in a November 2019 column.
“Reading the public comments on floridatoday.com is often unpleasant. They can turn nasty fast. Sometimes, they’re just plain irrelevant,” Bellaby wrote. “And yet, community engagement is critical and one of the most important goals we’ve set for ourselves at Florida Today.”
Bellaby’s column offered readers all the answers, but she still found herself responding to email after email and phone call after phone call reminding readers that this was just a test.
Why comments actually work
Where does the future of online comments lie? Stroud tried to answer that question in her research. They might be a method to convert potential subscribers — or a negative influence that wrestles resources from the rest of the organization and turns away potential readers.
“The future of comment sections will be determined by their usefulness for the audience and the financial incentives for the news organization,” Waddell said.
Newspaper audiences in general are not a representative sample of Americans, according to Stroud’s study results. Of readers who took a survey on their commenting habits, roughly 62% were men, 91% were white, 78% had a bachelor’s degree or more and the average age was 65.
For all the supposed fanfare around comments, many of the readers surveyed on sites with no comments didn’t realize they were gone. Only 10% noted the comments had been removed, and only 24% of those who had commented at least once noted that the comments were gone.
Still, even the readers who didn’t comment and, in fact, didn’t even notice comments missing spent more time on the site when there were comments to peruse. Turning off comments actually lowered the average time readers spent on the site, according to Stroud’s research.
And journalists, who have the most to lose from a harsh comment, didn’t have increased job satisfaction or feel differently about how the newsroom served the community when comments were eliminated.
For Florida Today’s Bellaby, who had to field all those reader emails when her paper’s comments policy was first announced, comments still feel important.
“I know it takes up time and takes up energy and it can be a headache, and I understand at times that it can turn people off, but I think not having them is a bigger irritant to people than having that ability,” she said. “I would always come down in favor of finding a way to allow people that opportunity to give feedback and to express their opinions, even though it isn’t perfect and it is work.”
Research shows that letting comments proliferate with little oversight is a “dangerous recipe,” Stroud says. As Waddell pointed out, incivility and negative comments can have a long-term impact. Certain commenting software use algorithms meant to flag problematic comments, but machines can only do so much.
“It’s difficult for me to think of how you would do that with zero oversight and have that be an award-winning strategy,” Stroud said.
Running online comments is work — and it can sometimes fall to one or two people in a newsroom. At The Des Moines Register, that person is often Brian Smith. While he recognizes the value of having a designated comments champion, he also sees the detrimental mental health effects of concentrating that work on one person.
“If it is one person’s full job and they spend 40 hours a week in the comment section, they are going to get burned out and that’s not productive for anyone,” he said. “I say that as someone who does the overwhelming majority of the commenting work on our site.”
But for newsrooms who don’t want to put significant thought, or even any thought, into their comment moderation teams, the better solution may be to forego, Smith said.
“If you’re unable and unwilling to devote those resources, then you are probably better off going without,” he said. “Having a bad system is a worse outcome than not having a system at all.”
The Detroit Free Press’ Delgado sees involving reporters more routinely in the process as a potential solution. Having the journalist in the space with commenters can create a conversation between the newsroom and the community. It’s beneficial not just to readers, but to the reporters themselves.
“I know when I moderate comments, I’m a smarter, better journalist,” Delgado said. “I know what people are talking about, and you can start to see a lot of the ideas and theories that are resonating.”
When Bellaby wrote a column a few months later announcing that comments would resume, she did not receive a flurry of excited responses. She wasn’t surprised — she compared it to stories of restaurants opening and closing. When a restaurant closes, readers are grief-stricken. They wonder, why didn’t I go? But when a new one opens, there’s no equivalent response.
Bellaby is realistic about the impact of comments. She sees Facebook and social media as the primary means people communicate, but she still firmly believes in the value of a newspaper providing a forum for readers.
“Even with those headaches and hassles, giving people that opportunity does matter, and that proved itself during the test,” she said. “It still is another available option to give people that opportunity to express their viewpoint or vent, and for the most part, I think people use it responsibly.”