Comments are changing. Our commitment to audiences shouldn't.
Editor's note: Amanda Zamora, the Texas Tribune's chief audience officer, gave a version of this talk on Monday at 10UP, Poynter's summit marking 10 years of participatory journalism. Before joining the Texas Tribune, Zamora was ProPublica's senior engagement editor.
One of the most rewarding — and at times, most humbling — parts about transitioning from digital storytelling into audience-driven storytelling for me has been learning how to solicit feedback and gather data from the audience that helps me understand what’s actually working for them — and what isn’t.
We’ve all seen social producers become engagement editors become growth hackers become platform editors and on and on and on — as all the while, we’ve been trying to help our colleagues understand that there’s more to our work than making shit go viral on the internet.
We’re serious journalists who understand audiences and analytics. But we see a plethora of story ideas — and people — in all of that data.
So when I speak at events like this, I’m usually making the case for the journalistic aspects of audience engagement. I’m usually pushing for newsrooms to think beyond all of those vanity metrics and to invest in more meaningful engagement: Engagement that involves people directly in the journalism. Engagement that serves communities. Engagement that is measured in user contributions that add up to real stories, Engagement that spurs change.
It’s the kind of engagement that Terry Parris Jr. and the ProPublica team are doing to report on the generational effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans and their families. I think they’re going on 6,000 stories collected now? And the VA has since pledged to the research that this community has long been calling for, in large part because of ProPublica’s work.
It’s the kind of engagement that Justin Auciello has done with Jersey Shore Hurricane News, a Facebook-first site launched to help Jersey residents as Hurricane Sandy barreled toward the East Coast in 2012. He’s now providing essential local coverage for nearly a quarter-million people on Facebook.
It’s what Teresa Gorman and the Localore team are doing with Finding America to bring public media to more communities across the U.S. — to document these places but also to help these communities tell their own stories.
It’s what Jennifer Brandel and the Hearken team are doing to bring audiences into the newsgathering process by helping journalists solicit — and actively report out — their audience’s questions.
All of these examples speak to the great progress we’ve made in the last decade at realizing the journalistic potential of audience engagement. But even as we’ve made such great strides, and seen news organizations become more enterprising in their efforts to engage readers, we’re also seeing another trend play out.
Today, I’m breaking a bit from my usual focus on crowd-powered news and deep user engagement to talk about something a little more fundamental — comments. Today’s summit marks the 10 year anniversary of CNN’s iReport, but it also marks more than a decade of comments on news websites.
Katie asked me to talk about the future of engagement and user participation — and honestly, comments normally would not be top of my list. I’d prefer to focus on the progress we’ve made beyond comments. But I think it’s worth taking a step back from all of that to look at the evolution of comments, and what it says about where we are with audience engagement now.
For a long time, I think comments were an easy answer for news organizations looking to check “engagement" off their list. Comments made our websites stickier — even if for a smaller population of users — and they signaled a level of openness to our readers that only the web 2.0 wave made possible. Newspapers opening up their stories to the feedback, including the inexpert questions, rants or criticism of “the audience,” was A REALLY BIG DEAL.
In 2005, I was the world editor at washingtonpost.com, back when washingtonpost.com was headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. It was an incredible digital newsroom that I credit with helping launch me on the path I’m on today. washingtonpost.com was doing all sorts of awesome stuff a decade ago: it won the first Emmy awarded for an online video, it modeled live online discussions long before Twitter was a thing, and it was the first major American newspaper website to launch a blog — and comments — with Joel Achenbach’s aptly named Achenblog.
Commenters became such a dynamic part of Joel’s blog that they earned their own name: The Boodle. As Joel recalls, The Boodle required some intervention in the early days, but eventually became a self-policing community. The Boodle shared poems and recipes, and took care of each other. If someone was in a financial pinch, The Boodle would pitch in. It sounds like comment utopia, right?
But comments have clearly changed. For one, they’ve migrated from our sites to social networks, and become more fluid conversations that ebb and flow with a much bigger, much more complicated universe of influencers and regular folks, of celebrities and trolls, of bots and campaign hacks.
I observed the beginning of this great migration when I was still at The Washington Post, leading the national desk’s online political coverage ahead of the 2012 elections. I watched the campaigns — in particular, the Obama campaign — become sophisticated in the way they bypassed media organizations like ours to shape their own narratives and cultivate their own audiences online.
I remember being on a conference call with the search insights service Hitwise — and the analyst mentioned hosting a similar call for their political clients. And a light bulb went off: Of course we weren’t just competing with The New York Times or Politico or other news sites for eyeballs anymore. We were competing directly with the campaigns.
Soon, I was watching all of this play out from a distance. I joined ProPublica in 2012, and took a step back from daily trends and fact-check warfare to work on long-term investigative projects. At ProPublica, my focus shifted away from riding real-time trends to using social and other tools to build communities around our investigations over the long haul. But even as I stepped back from the daily grind, it was clear that social was where more of our audiences lived online.
Social media — and in particular Facebook — has become the dominant marketplace for exchanging news and information online. And perhaps more importantly, it’s one of the primary drivers of public discourse. So it's not surprising that news organizations have followed their audiences there. But something else is also shifting.
Consider just some of what’s happened in the last year:
- At least 622 people have been shot and killed by police in the last year. That’s according to The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database (and that number, sadly, has gone up since I first drafted this talk).
- Shootings that we never heard about before are now are now documented and discussed across social media, as we remember by Philando Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who broadcast his death on Facebook Live after Minnesota police shot him near St. Paul.
- Five police officers were shot and killed and nine were injured in an ambush by an Army veteran in Dallas in July.
- A man claiming allegiance to ISIS shot and killed 49 people in an attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando in June.
- And amid all this, voters are deliberating between two presidential candidates with some of the worst unfavorable ratings in recent history.
But our understanding and interpretation of these events often has less to do with the facts, as news organizations report them, than with the conversations that follow them online. Those conversations have coalesced into movements, but they've also helped create a new breed of “publishers" who have found a way to profit by serving up audiences more of what they want to hear about these issues, regardless of the facts. Factual value has taken a back seat to emotional value that drives clicks and revenue.
John Herrman just had a terrific story in The New York Times Magazine looking into the business model of these publishers on Facebook and the impact that these pages — some of them with larger followings than major U.S. news organizations — are having on political discourse.
If identity politics has been a guiding force in modern elections, social platforms have helped make identity publishing the norm in news. It’s easier than ever to see all the news that's fit to like — if something or someone posts something disagreeable, simply hide or unlike it until your newsfeed looks agreeable again. If you haven’t seen The Wall Street Journal’s Red Feed, Blue Feed project, take a look. The polarization in conversations couldn’t be more stark.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying platforms are directly to blame for polarization, or that personalized news experiences are all bad. These platforms also amplify the good. They make it possible for communities to overcome geographic boundaries to organize around common interests and issues, to create movements. The same technology that can shape news and conversation in narrow ways can also expand our ability to connect with the most interested and relevant audiences.
At ProPublica, that meant using Facebook to ensure Liberians were able to access our investigation of an American company’s role in their civil war, and that Haitians could read our investigation into the Red Cross’s failed relief efforts there. These platforms are clearly providing us greater access to new audiences.
But they've also made it easier than ever to insulate ourselves from ideas that differ from our own. Which brings me back to comments.
Why shouldn’t news organizations follow in the footsteps of NPR and others who have shut down comments over the last year? These newsrooms cite plenty of seemingly good reasons for doing so, in particular, the amount of resources required to moderate the flame wars of a precious few, not to mention a rise in abuse and personal attacks online.
But here’s the thing: ceding these conversations to social platforms doesn’t solve any of those problems, it simply defers any solutions and puts the conversations about our journalism even further beyond our reach, shaped instead by algorithms that reinforce the very same polarization that bogged down the comment threads we couldn't redeem in the first place.
News organizations can say, “It’s not our job to provide conversations. It’s our job to provide the news.” But take a step back and look at the last year — how fragmented our conversations have become. How scary they’ve become. How fast information and misinformation is shaped to serve the reality people want, instead of the reality that is. And then ask, “Whose job is it to invest in diverse discussions online?” Is it platforms that are designed to keep us clicking at any cost, or news organizations that value accuracy, fairness and diversity — at least in theory?
By abandoning comments, news organizations are not only giving up an important role in shaping public discourse — they're giving up a key avenue toward having direct, sustainable relationships with their audiences. Those relationships are vital to any future we have in this business, whether you’re a for-profit or a nonprofit. And I’m grateful to see it acknowledged so explicitly in The Texas Tribune’s mission:
The Texas Tribune is the only member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Our job doesn’t stop when we hit publish. It begins well before and continues after. We want to help Texans access the information they need to make informed decisions, whether it’s through our stories, databases or one of more than 50 events that we host across the state every year.
Bringing readers together in discussion with our journalists, policy leaders, public officials and each other about the issues that matter to them and affect them directly is an important way we fulfill our mission to engage the public. And we want to figure out how to translate that experience to even wider audiences online. Social platforms are a key entry point — but that’s where our engagement efforts begin, not where they end.
We want to get to know our audiences — and keep them — over time. We want them engaging with us in our own ecosystem where we can see and measure how they consume and engage across our site, emails, events and more. I know the Tribune is different. Nonprofit, mission-driven news is different. But commercial newsrooms have the same opportunities to think about audiences as more than fly-by, casual readers or commenters — but as communities of actual people with stories and ideas to share. Comments are not the only way to cultivate those communities, but they’re a fundamental one.
So given all of this thinking about comments today, I was curious what Joel Achenbach, given his positive experience, thinks about comments 10 years later. Could The Boodle exist today, in the age of social media? Or should news organizations be shutting down comments? Joel said he understands why some newsrooms are — that we are truly seeing the best and worst of online discussion right now. But in the end, he said, abandoning comments would be a tragic missed opportunity. Here’s how he put it:
"I think if you shut down comments you are turning away from an enormous amount of potentially good material that you can publish. The smartest person in the room is the room itself, the audience. The audience knows more than anyone else. So if you can tap into the audience's knowledge, that's a huge resource."
I tend to agree, and I’m sure most of you in this room do, too. I thought a lot about whether I wanted to talk about comments today, because I think we have come so far in rethinking what it means to engage audiences in meaningful ways. But as we continue to innovate with social platforms and mobile tools and events and so many other avenues for user participation, I think it would be a huge mistake to discard one of the most fundamental connections we have with our readers. And that is their ability to have a voice on our own pages, with our own journalists and with each other, and to participate in a diverse, constructive dialogue around the news.
We get out of our communities what we invest in them. And right now, I guess that’s what worries me.