Why reader comments matter if local journalism is to thrive online

Reader comments have been getting a bad press of late. As Roy Greenslade noted last week, a number of publishers have decided to dispense with them altogether.

PostMedia in Canada has put a pause on comments due to the vitriolic nature of many of the comments. I can understand that reaction – we’ve all seen stories which have involved many hours of hard work, only for the first two or three comments to set off a stream of racist bile which has little to do with the subject matter.

Other websites, reports the MediaBriefing, are ditching comments for other reasons, including to allow journalists to spend time on social media where, it is argued, readers would rather be sharing and discussing stories anyway.

Meanwhile, over the summer, the editor of the South Wales Argus, Kevin Ward, took to his blog to criticise the tone of comments appearing on his own website. “When did Britain become such an ugly country?” he asked, referring to comments which encouraging a suicidal man to to jump from a bridge, and backed an MP’s calls for water cannons to be used on refugees at Calais. Comments remain open and active on the Argus website.

Greenslade, in his post last week, asks whether it is wise for news websites to switch off comments. For me, the answer is no.

It’s entirely possible that the age of the open web is coming to a close. As the internet moves towards mobile, apps are becoming the way super-loyal readers will engage with the brands which mean the most to them. Providing no way for the reader to engage with the stories they are reading is perhaps the worst sort of customer service a news brand could provide. And whether we like it or not, journalism is a customer service industry in many respects.

Interacting with readers on social is fine – and, indeed, is the difference between social journalism and just social newsgathering – but it’s also handing the fruits of your hard work – and indeed a company’s investment in your work – to another platform on a plate.

That principle alone doesn’t solve the problem Ward (among others) highlights about the vitriol so often seen underneath articles. There is no easy solution here. The internet has created a culture of anonymity, while social media and forums have made it easier than ever for like-minded individuals to interact with each other, which in turn can create a sense of extreme views being the norm for said individuals.

But we do need to find a solution – and it begins with treating comments with the respect they deserve. If you imagine a news website as a pub, and the editor as the publican, then you wouldn’t expect the publican to allow any sort of behaviour in his pub. He or she would set out to create the right atmosphere, create the right experience for drinkers, and hopefully turn them into diners to get them to spend more time there.

On websites, that means choosing when to open comments, and encouraging journalists who write the stories to get involved and engage with the comments. Time and again, I’ve seen comment threads which are threatening to take a dark turn stay on a positive track just because people realise the journalist who wrote it is reading the comments, and joining in.

Simple steps like kicking off an opening question at the foot of articles, or delivering follow-up articles based on comments, and maybe even pulling comments above the fold, can all make a difference.

It also means getting the online community to flag up offensive posts, and take steps to make it harder for those offensive commenters to post on your site again. It’s not easy, and it takes time and effort, but the reward surely is worth it.

For any newsroom moaning about the quality of the comments under their stories, I suspect they are probably getting comments which reflect the effort being spent attracting the right commenters, and the time spent creating the right environment for the right community to grow.

It’s not easy, but if we want local journalism to thrive online, showing readers we care about what they think isn’t a nice to have, it’s a fundamental essential. 

3 comments

  1. “I suspect they are probably getting comments which reflect the effort being spent attracting the right commenters, and the time spent creating the right environment for the right community to grow.”

    Really? So how come your own group’s Scottish titles had to switch off user comments entirely? Is that purely because the journalists and online staff weren’t putting in the effort?

    1. As you know Iain, I don’t work on our Scottish websites, and am therefore not familiar with circumstances up there. I do know that Scottish laws present different challenges around commenting. What I am saying overall is that for too long websites across the internet have assumed comments are just a thing which happened, and could be left alone to happen, and that clearly isn’t the case.

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