Here come the angry brigade: Are comments on stories more hassle than they are worth?

Angry Birds = Good. Angry comments = not so good

“It’s about the comments under my story.” For digital editors, there can surely be few phrases more likely to make the heart sink when uttered at close quarter.

Often, the words come from a reporter infuriated at the tone of the comments left under a story. The comments may be critical about the story. They may be critical about the reporter. They may be abusive about the people in the story. After a while, those commenting may well start turning on each other.

All of which puts a digital editor in a difficult position. Pre-moderation of comments is out of the question because of the legal precedent set which makes the website responsible for any comments it pre-approves. Reactive moderation comes with a whole other list of pitfalls: Start removing comments which might cause upset – to reporter or reader but which aren’t actually legally dodgy – and you run the risk of allegations of censorship at best, or provoke an even worse stream of consciousness from someone who enjoys useful four-letter words. Ban them and if they know their web, they’ll be back on within minutes under a new name and probably with a new IP address. Simples, it ain’t.

The more I think about it, the more I come to the following conclusion: Comments on stories really aren’t worth the hassle.

I don’t want to come to that conclusion. I like nothing more than the idea of readers absorbing a story then adding their own, thoughtful take. But does it really happen? On occasion, yes it does, but even in the places you might expect quite high-minded  debate – such as The Guardian or The Times – the debate below a story rarely reflects the quality of work above it.

And if your regular commenters are prone to throwing around abuse, or making comments which are generally unpleasant and accusatory in tone, it’s surely unlikely that the sort of people you want commenting on your stories – ones with reasoned opinions, for example – will want to get involved. Indeed, does the flaming of a journalist’s integrity just because he’s written something someone disagrees with do anything other than scare other readers off? After all, you wouldn’t stick around in a pub very long if those around you were being rude and abusive to each other, would you?

One editor I know is a huge fan of comments, particularly on stories about people who have died because they usually elicit a number of tributes in the comments which he can then use in print. Nothing wrong with that – it’s an non-intrusive way to allow people to add to an article which has clearly moved them. But what happens when others wade into the discussion, saying the death of two teenagers will clearly be because the teenager will have been driving too fast? We wouldn’t allow it in print, we wouldn’t allow it on the radio – so why would we allow it online?

Another editor I know feels duty of care towards a reporter should take priority over the right of someone to comment offensively about the quality of the reporter’s work on their platform. Another who I used to work with still recounts with horror the time he found people plotting to turn up at a reporter’s house to say what they thought of his coverage of their football club – plotting on his website.

This isn’t an argument aimed at rebuilding the wall between journalist and reader – far from it. It’s just that I don’t see comments in stories doing anything to help build the relationship between journalist and reader.

If you look at a blog by a sports journalist, you’ll see a much higher quality of comment than you will under the same sports journalist’s stories elsewhere on the site – and the quality will be even higher if the sports journalist responds to the comments.

A journalist and a reader will get infinitely more out of an open relationship via Twitter than they will via comments under a story. Maybe it’s the 140-character limit keeping you brief, or maybe it’s because on social media you expect the journalist to see what you’ve said. Or maybe it’s the fact that on Twitter – and even more so on Facebook – you’re more likely to use your real name.

Ask yourself this: If you were banking on reaction suitable for use in a story, would you pin your hopes on the comments under a story or a thread started on the newspaper’s Facebook fan page? I know which I’d go for – and time and time again, Facebook comes out on top. Why? Perhaps because Facebook feels safer for people, or maybe it’s because, as journalists, we’re taking our discussion to the places where people are already socialising.

There are many other ways for building bridges between reporters and readers, of opening up the story-gathering process so that its more transparent. Ensuring you’re involved where people are already talking about your beat, patch or specialism – forums, for example, is surely a better way to spend time and energy than by monitoring the comments on a story.

At the moment, aren’t we making it a little too easy to arrive on a story, post a (frequently offensive) rant, then disappear off again, leaving other readers feeling unsure as to whether they want to return to your site again? If someone wants to interact with a reporter, why not just make it easier to email the reporter, or to follow them on Twitter – ways in which a conversation can be meaningful, beneficial to all – the commenter, the journalist and the audience at large.

In short, are comments on stories worth the hassle when there are so many better ways to interact? Or am I just having a bad day?

24 comments

  1. You are just having a bad day? Most of what you’ve said there could possibly be boiled down to “conversations are better in a social space where the news org is active and joins in” and “don’t open comments on articles where you are liable to get bad comments”.

    But, boy, can they be dispiriting at times…

    I think the first time I had the flash of thinking “this just isn’t worth it” was when I was on holiday earlier in the year, and not online much. I went to a news site the day after Bin Laden’s death, and followed a link to a blog post on the Telegraph site, and comment #7 was just something stark like “This is old news. Haven’t we moved on yet?”. And I did briefly wonder why we all bother.

    But…

    This lot are lovely – http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/series/readersrecommend – and the hardcore of our live blogging commenters are brilliant at the Guardian – and this lot – http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2011/aug/02/county-cricket-live – and this lot http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/gamesblog+series/chatterbox

    1. Hi Martin. Thanks for the comment. Maybe the distinction is that if there’s a genuine community to be built around something, it’s worth it, and can create something special – but how realistic is it for a newspaper or media brand to create a general commenting community across everything it does?

  2. It takes a fraction of a second to click a LIKE or FOLLOW button.

    It takes a fraction of a minute to reply to a tweet or comment on a Facebook update.

    It takes a few minutes to read a blog article and respond as I am doing here.

    Which would you, the content creator, prefer? Someone who clicks buttons, writes sentence replies, or fuller in-depth comments? It’s not rocket science, David.

    Then again, I’d prefer people read the damn piece and whether they like it, share it, or comment on it is extra. The more who read is a direct causation to the more well known I become. And knowledge of someone is power.

    1. Hello – thanks for your comment. What you’ve just described is very much what I’d love to see under news stories, but very rarely do. I do, however, see them frequently on blogs. Why do you think that is? I’m not sure.

      1. Could the commenting interface be to blame? Could the allowance of anonymity or otherwise handles be to blame? Could the lack of a visible commenting policy be to blame? Could the lack of a specific call to comment be to blame?

  3. ha, think you may just be having a bad day… worry ye not, tomorrow will be a lot better. I like reading comments, especially if they have a bit of humour mixed in. If they get abusive I just go and read something else. Abuse is a bit pathetic really. Well personal abuse I mean, some ‘things’ are worthy of a nice bit of rhetoric sometimes. The thing that bugs me most are trolls, such timewasters. But there you go. You have to take the rough with the smooth and sort the wheat from the chaff as me gran used ter say.
    Keep posting, and keep your comments open.
    chris

  4. There will always be people who want to stir things up or who just want to behave badly. There’s no fixing that.

    But more comments mean more engagement, more engagement can mean better ad rates, better ad rates can mean more revenue. That’s the business side, of course, but even those who would like to monetize their blogs will have a better time doing so with better engagement to demonstrate.

    I think, in general, you probably will get better conversation on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc. But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of quality comments on the site itself. Maybe the comment system, particularly if it requires a login like Facebook, would encourage more quality comments.

    Perhaps using a flagging system that goes beyond the thumbs-up and thumbs-down options you have at the moment — that would notify a web person of a comment that has been specifically reported as inappropriate — would cut down on any moderation time but also provide for a less frustrating user experience.

    Honestly, on a news site, I’m more likely to comment on social media. But that’s only if they post the link and I’m their friend. If I make it to their site without following a link from social media, if I have something to say, I’d rather have the option of leaving a comment versus just being a stifled reader with no way to ask questions or respond.

  5. Do you want readers to discuss your stories and news in your circulation area on your website? Where you can easily see it, moderate it, find story tips from it, and hopefully attract their attention with other stories and ads? Or do you want it to occur on someone else’s, and you just serve up the debating point for another website?

    Surely there’s no question that we want to keep readers on site for as long as possible. So the question then becomes: how do we improve reader comments threads?

    For me it comes down to two things: engagement and management.

    I agree that conversations between reporters and readers on Twitter are less negative. But that is nothing to do with the medium itself or anonymity (it’s increasingly rare to see real names on Twitter nowadays anyway). It’s because it’s a two-way conversation. People have always tempered what they write depending on the audience – what they write in their private diary and in a letter would always be different.

    Readers rarely, if ever, see reporters join in the conversation on comments threads, therefore it’s not unreasonable for them to assume they do not read or care about what they write below the fold. So it becomes a free-for-all discussion between readers. But where the reporters join in on a comments thread, generally it keeps the discussion civilised.

    For instance, our football reporters seldom receive an inappropriate comment during a live match webchat because readers are involved in a two-way exchange. During the week, in the free-for-all comments threads, that’s certainly not the case.

    So encouraging reporters to engage with readers on their comments threads is surely a must. If they will converse with them on Twitter, why not on the website of the company which pays their wages?

    The second key is strong management of comments by web editors. You need to set up systems where you respond to complaints about inappropriate comments within minutes. Speedy removal can stop a comments thread becoming derailed or hijacked. You need to send warnings to users who overstep the mark and to ban those whose persist. Then keep banning them if they reappear and reoffend until they run out of patience and give up. You need to be prepared to explain to readers why their comment about speeding on a death crash could be perceived as insensitive and therefore it’s been removed.

    In short, you need to be genial host of the party and the hard-as-nails bouncer.

    Finally, I think one of the first lessons on journalism courses should be how to converse with readers online.

    1. Hi – I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said but I still find myself thinking that even if we are the genial host and the bouncer, we may not get the people we want commenting on stories, because those who do are probably already talking somewhere else. For example, AccyWeb appears to be very active with people talking about stories which have appeared in the LT and the Accy Ob. Given AccyWeb is so established, wouldn’t it be better to work on a relationship with them, than spend so much time managing those people who comment on our sites? I agree it’d be much better if they were talking about our content on our platforms, but how realistic is that? With the resources we have, isn’t the priority making sure we’re talked about, even if it isn’t on our sites?

      1. But it’s our job to facilitate discussion between local people; it’s part of our DNA, just as much as it is to cover football matches or list death notices. Newspapers have always hosted opinions – columnists, letters pages, vox pops – so why stop now? There are flaws and ways we can do it better, as has been discussed on this tread. But I don’t see how ‘outsourcing’ local discussion to dozens of tiny town and village forums run by enthusiastic but non-legally-trained citizens would benefit anyone.

      2. I’m not sure vox pops have ever facilitated discussions between local people, I think they tend to have more to do with trying to convince readers that lots of people have an opinion on a story to justify putting into print – but there speaks a bitter trainee journalist, I suppose.

        The consenus appears to be that if journalists interact with the comments, then they will improve. But given time constraints on journalists, I think it is a choice between watching comments on stories or joining conversations happening elsewhere which can help shape the stories we write. Far from ideal, but is it where we are?

        Maybe the problem I’m describing with comments is that we assume lots of people want to comment on articles a lot of the time. As a reader of the LT, I’m happy just to read it, and very occasionally I might feel as though I have an opinion but I’m put off by those who comment on everything and by the registration process (and the Newsquest registration process is one of the better ones). What I’m thinking is that there might be a better way to get readers involved, which doesn’t involve comments. Not sure I know what it is though.

  6. Part of the issue here could be to do with the words we use to describe this activity – ‘comments on stories’ sounds like a very limited opportunity for involvement so maybe we get what we deserve if we think success is all about getting a long toilet roll of comments. Also depends on the context of the environment we’re looking at – comments on football stories could reasonably be expected to be more of a forum style than a debate on the eco-friendliness of transport systems for instance but we lump them all under the ‘comments’ description. With news, if the only invite is to comment on what’s been delivered from on high it could be quite frustrating for a reader who knows something about the topic. If the readers felt more empowered, more listened to and more part of the process they would be less fighty. Bloggers are generally more willing to involve the reader in the process – something that news sites could learn from perhaps? Another thing that I find is that staying involved in the story and contributing to the comments makes for a more constructive debate and, the earlier you get involved in the thread, the more on-topic it goes. Left to a free-for-all becomes a free-for-all but that said, once you’ve spotted a troll (and everyone gets them) – don’t feed it.

    1. HI Sarah, thanks for the comment. Maybe part of the problem is that on many news sites, comments are left open on pretty much story other than the legally dodgy ones. This makes moderation very tricky and for a reporter who maybe has six or seven stories a day published, monitoring the reaction is impossible. But if we go down the route of being more selective about which stories have comment threads, are we in danger of becoming even more ‘on high’ in the sense that not only are we only allowing people to comment once a story is completed, we’re also only allowing them to comment on certain stories?

      I think commenting on stories almost creates an illusion that people can get involved in a story – actually getting people involved in the newsgathering process is entirely different, and is much more effectively done through social media and joining in conversations elsewhere?

  7. No, I don’t think you’re having a bad day in the slightest. After three years of wading through sectarian abuse and Labour-SNP libel sniping contests masquerading as reaction to a story, I question the value of user comments in the modern age.

    I think a lot of difference comes down to the engagement, as Paul says, but I tend to see readers comments as in a similar vein to the letters page – oftentimes users leave comments not to create debate or to engage with the reporter/other readers, but just to have an opinion on the story. Or, if it’s something they disagree with, to bait the title/other readers over the content.

    Part of it comes form the post-mod mentality. It creates a free-for-all attitude. If users know it will take some time, if ever, for their offensive comments to be policed they’re more willing to post something they wouldn’t than if there’s an instant feedback to their words.

    There is a degree of value to having it on certain types of stories – the obit/deathknock type is a good example, I’d agree – but largely in this day and age the nature of engagement has moved on beyond just leaving comments, or having a forum, or similar.

    And it’s very easy for those working for titles with huge numbers of staff or dedicated community mods to spout comments about empowerment and staying involved in the story, but as most sites have to struggle by with just a handful of staff at best, that’s a luxury most digital teams can’t afford.

  8. I think pre-moderation should not be ruled out of hand so hastily. One of the best examples I’ve seen for a thriving community of regular commentators, the comments below articles on the gaming blog rockpapershotgun.com, has been achieved through meticulous pre-moderation.

    I don’t buy the legal reasons for not pre-moderating. Surely, if a newspaper is able to judge what stories should go on its website, it can also judge what comments are not legally safe.

    1. HI Dilyan, I agree with you about the appeal of pre-moderation but the legal precedent has been set: If you pre-moderate, you’re responsible for all comments on there. You’re right, as a newspaper we make judgement calls all day but there are plenty of examples of comments being approved which seem reasonable enough at first, but which turn out to contain some detail or reference which causes threats of libel, or worse. Volume of comments also can make effective pre-moderation very hard.

  9. Dave – an interesting post, and funny that it seems to have generated more comments than your usual posts do😉

    But, I think comments have to be on. As Patrick says above it’s important the debates are happening on the local media site (primarily) and not on a competitor site or other forum.

    I think there’s a few ways to improve and ‘upgrade’ comments:

    – Allow commenting via Twitter/Facebook i.e. real faces/names
    – Perhaps force real names to be used for commenting, no LiverpoolScouseFan111666777
    – Get journalists responding to the comments, have people active in replying to the comment threads and saying ‘Now, listen here, if you swear once more I’m going to ban you’ – and then banning them. It gives value to the community
    – Introduce commenting badges, levels and make it more of a gaming experience. So good and well-written comments get promoted, recommended and the bad ones don’t. This helps create an idea of what is accepted and what isn’t.

    And this might cheer you up. Story from WalesOnline the other month about a sheep on a roof, the story is funny enough and the photo I got our art desk to mock up – but check out the comment half-way down the thread below the story from ‘oldskool’: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/need-to-read/2011/06/14/firefighters-called-to-rescue-sheep-from-roof-of-terraced-house-91466-28874784/

  10. Echoing the always erudite Martin Belam here, and Anil Dash who recently said something similar in one sentence.

    Look at the comments here, or on a blog like Fred Wilson’s VC blog – many, many intelligent comments on each article. The author liking and responding to some of them and following up in the future…

    Then compare that to most mainstream news and magazine websites, where the author sits in the office churning out stories and only ever scans the comments for anything he or she feels offended by.

    I’m not saying it’s easy when you might have anything over 500,000 people per month up to 10s of millions, but I do hate the presumption that the web is ‘easy’. I’ve managed sites with 1-2 million uniques a month and found that making the time and effort as much as I could made a notable difference, even by meeting up in person with a tiny percentage of the readers (Who also happened to be the most vocal on the forums and articles, and from then on were able to have an understanding of why we did certain things and help out with reacting to comments which weren’t helpful).

    It’s pretty simple – I use the pub analogy. I’ve drunk in grotty pubs with great atmosphere because the landlord and staff were involved, and I’ve had terrible experiences in the shiniest chain pubs because the landlord and staff didn’t give a monkeys. And online commenting is no different.

    1. Hello, thanks for the comment. There’s an irony to asking whether comments on stories are worth the hassle and then getting so many comments, but I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: Blog comments tend to be better, because they can promote a discussion and real interaction. Blanket comment facilities on all stories on a news website can’t necessarily do that, and that might be the problem.

  11. It’s with a heavy heart that I am inclined to agree with you. Recent experiences with NUFC comments being totally abusive both to our reporters and to other posters have proved to me that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and sometimes you can’t please any of them.

    We tried to mitigate some of the flak we were getting from fans frustrated with the Joey Barton situation by hosting a live webchat. This was encouraging in lots of ways – there were a couple of thousand live participants, and of the 700 or so comments and questions submitted only about 30% of them were abusive. But then look at the comments beneath the article in which we left the webchat to be replayed, and the impossible nature of our task is clear: http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/newcastle-united/nufc-news/2011/08/05/webchat-with-chief-sports-writer-lee-ryder-72703-29182907/

    Personally I very much want our sites to provide interactive platforms for healthy – and strong – debate, and I can cite plenty of examples of great quality comments that have generated excellent reverse publishable content for our newspapers. But balanced against the management hours that have gone into removing, warning, banning (pointlessly, since as you say savvy users just re-register within minutes) and dealing with the fallout from users abusing either our staff or each other, I’m not sure whether we’re getting it right.

    I do like Ed’s suggestions for upgrading comments. The people who are abusive on our site all, to a user, have daft nicknames and not real names, so I think forcing people to post under their own name would stamp out some of this (although how can we be sure they’re really real?).

    Introducing commenting badges could be an interesting approach. One of my team has suggested making the current scoring system for comments actually mean something – so if you get a really negative score, you go into a sin bin of sorts and are stopped from commenting for a period of time.

    We definitely need to change our approach though. We had to shut the forums down because the level of abuse and personal vendettas being carried out there were completely unmanageable. I for one would be very sad if comments went the same way – it would feel like a retrograde step for our sites.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s