All was quiet in the comments section for a few hours on Monday after a piece about changes to Philly.com’s comments process went up on the site. And that made Erica Palan a little nervous. But the quiet didn’t last for too long.
By Tuesday afternoon, there were 555 comments in that article’s comments section.
Palan, audience engagement manager for Philly.com, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, answered questions via email about a video included in the article with staff reading angry comments, changes to the comments process and why the site is keeping its comments up. First, here’s the video:
KH: What made you guys decide to do the video?
We actually filmed and edited the video more than a month ago. Several people had approached me about the idea and we’d been joking about doing this for a few months. I invited people who’d either approached me directly about it or who had already volunteered to help with comments strategy.
After we filmed it, the consensus was that it was pretty funny and readers would like it, but it seemed a little strange to just post it without any meaningful changes to our comments section. We get a lot of heat—internally and externally—about the quality of comments on Philly.com, and as we gear up for a redesign (follow the process at beta.philly.com!), we know that cleaning up the comments has to be a part of it.
It felt wrong to acknowledge the problem without providing any solutions, so we held it until we had something to say. When we released it this week, it was in conjunction with a change to the user experience surrounding our comments: a click-through-to-read function on news stories.
KH: You’re making an effort to keep comments in a time when many sites have scrapped them. Why is that?
There are definitely folks in our newsrooms—and in the industry overall—who would be happy to see comments go away. But our digital leadership team is committing to keeping comments. Commenters are some of our most dedicated readers. They come back again and again to our stories. Also, the Internet is a big, chatty place. If we don’t give our readers the opportunity to talk about the news, they’ll go elsewhere.
KH: There were 545 comments with this piece! Is that normal?
Ha, not at all! Some of our stories will generate a ton of comments, but 545 is a lot no matter what barometer we’re using. I was really nervous it’d be crickets for awhile, because it was a few hours before it took off! (How embarrassing to write an article about comments and then receive no comments?) To me, it showed that our commenters really do care about being a part of Philly.com.
KH: I noticed you moderated them. Any advice for other journalists or news outlets?
At Philly.com we’ve been really inspired by the work being done by the Engaging News Project. They put out a study that showed that having writers moderate and comment on their own stories improved the tenor of comments overall. A handful of reporters for the Inquirer and Daily News have started to do this and anecdotally, we feel it’s been pretty successful.
In this particular instance, I approached it by doing two things: 1) thanking people for reasonable suggestions and 2) correcting misconceptions about how our site works.
It’s really easy to assume that everyone online knows how your site works, but what I learned was the people had no idea that they could flag bad comments (and once a comment has been flagged a certain number of times, it comes down). That’s really important because it gives commenters some control! I also learned that readers wish comments were open on every article — or at least had some understanding of why certain articles get a comment section and others don’t.
It was really educational to hear from our readers, and I’d encourage other journalists and news outlets to try engaging with their commenters. While a couple of people tried to veer the conversation off topic, a lot of people had smart ideas for the comments section and vocalized honest concerns about our site. To me, that’s incredibly valuable feedback that I might not have been able to get anywhere else.