You may have read in the last couple of days about a decision by Trinity Mirror – my employer – to implement a commenting system on websites which requires log-in via Facebook.
Before I go on, I should stress I write this blog in a personal capacity. The Facebook decision was one I was involved in, as part of Trinity Mirror’s senior digital team, but I want to approach this from a journalist’s point of view, and also question the assumption that we should go for digital communities at all costs.
The Manchester Evening News is due to become the second regional news site I work with to migrate to a new content management system – escenic – next week, following the Birmingham Mail which migrated in November. More sites will follow – much more quickly – over the next 12 months. For both the M.E.N – which became part of TM in 2010 – and existing Trinity Mirror regional digital teams, the move offers the chance to wave goodbye to systems which had served us well in favour of systems which allow us to focus on content.
As part of the preparation for the switch, we wanted to alert users – including a substantial commenting community – on the M.E.N site about the fact that, for now, commenting will be possible through Facebook log in. Other log-in options may follow, but for now it’s Facebook, and despite the tone of some blog posts written about this – such as ex-MEN digital editor Sarah Hartley’s post – we decided to explain in detail what we were doing because we respect large numbers of that community.
(I’m always wary, personally, of blogging about former employers because I know an awful lot can change in the space of a few years, so I won’t dwell on the errors Hartley makes in describing how we are implementing the new site. Her suggestion that we were shocked by the reaction is wide of the mark too – proving the dangers of using a Tweet but not seeking context when drawing conclusions for a blog or article. And quite why people in Birmingham are commenters who can gather round issues of interest, I’m not sure… )
Press Gazette picked up on the article, and later on, so did Hold The Front Page. If you searched for Trinity Mirror on Twitter on Tuesday – the day the PG article appeared – there was a lot of discussion about it, and a fair number of the one-word opinion followed by a link. ‘Bonkers’ and so on.
At time of writing, there had been 189 comments on the article, most negative about the change. Go through the comments are there are about 50 people commenting – a fraction of the number of people who comment regularly, an even smaller fraction of those signed up to comment and an even smaller fraction of those who visit the site every day. So when people on Twitter talk about ‘scores of complaints’ and bloggers like Hartley talk of ‘backlashes’ it is done so without this context, which is a shame. Especially when I’d flagged up the tiny volume in a Tweet which has been used to suggest I was ‘shocked.’ And, as anyone who has relaunched a website knows, you always get complaints. We did when we turned off our forums, and the BBC did when it updated its sport websites and removed functionality only used by a (vocal) minority.
Most of the people who have complained, and this particularly so in the case of those commenting on Twitter, seem to come from a starting point that news websites should allow free-for-all comments on all stories, and that the ‘community’ can say what it likes under any name it likes. I don’t see it like that.
Over the last 12 months, I have become increasingly concerned about the tone of essentially anonymous comments on our websites. We employ a lot of very talented journalists to write stories, and increasingly building digital communities around their work is second nature, regardless of whether we have comments or not.
So, having employed those journalists to produce high-quality content, we find ourselves using it online and then, increasingly often, finding comment threads taking an unsavoury tone which in turn leads to abuse of the journalists who have written the stories or of users.
Look at the first comment on the article which triggered this ‘outcry.‘ It’s offensive to the sports journalists, in my opinion. As journalists, we should have thick skins, but for the commenting community there is also a responsibility.
A responsibility to respect others within that community, which includes the journalists. We could just remove any comment which criticises us, but that would defeat the purpose of open discussion on our website. I’d much rather we encouraged people to log in via Facebook and post comments they aren’t ashamed of being associated with under their real name.
Hartley harks back to the fact to the MEN used to pre-moderate comments (and this is where we agree – it’s not a good thing). Legal advice means we can’t do that, and besides, it’s a near-criminal waste of time in a newsroom to do so. What’s more, I’d rather work to build up a community based on respect of each other which didn’t have to have every action pre-checked and scrutinised. What other sort of community would operate in that way?
Most of the comments on the MEN article conclude that if they have to use their real names, they just won’t comment. Why not, would be my question. Of course, you can still post comments via Facebook login using something other than your real name, but it’s just more complicated to set up.
Another alternative would be that we could spend more time building community and interacting with the comments. We could, we should, and we do. But look at the Guardian, which has thrown money at its community work and look at the comments which generally bedevil the articles it chooses to open comments on. Still not good. Again, I’d rather open comments on as many stories as possible, let the community decide what it wants to talk about and do so in a manner which is respectful to each other.
As someone who is interested in quality journalism, and creating sites which encourage people to keep visiting – and the MEN site has recorded excellent growth in this respect in the last two years under the leadership of talented journalists – I want as many people to read our content and feel they can join in with a discussion in a rewarding manner. For each complaint we’ve seen so far, we’ve had many more remarks – in person, via email, in research – from people who say anonymous comments drag the site down.
In Birmingham, we got some complaints about the Facebook log in but the number of comments hasn’t fallen off a cliff. The quality of the debate and discussion has improved, in my opinion. And traffic levels on the Birmingham Mail are now the fastest growing of any of our regional sites. New functionality, content concepts, designs and approach to news are all combining to create a site which I think is the best in the regional news business. And we will continue to get better. We will look at the concerns raised by users – but lets keep this in context.
I can only go back to what I said before: I believe that journalists should be open and accountable – in many ways, the internet has made this possible.
But I also believe that with that accountability should come an expectation that those interacting with us do so in a manner which is based on respect. To that end, Facebook commenting can only be a good thing for journalists.