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Online comments are a constant source of consternation at many news organisations and publishers, as too often the conversation can veer off into in-fighting between commenters or off-topic posts.

Amanda Zamora, as senior engagement editor at ProPublica, has overseen some new and innovative ways to guide readers into positive contributions and shared some of her thoughts on a panel about the significance of online comments at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia on Saturday.

"Conversation can really add to journalistic endeavours and a sense of community," said Zamora, as "it gives them a reason to come back."

The traditional discourse around comments often revolves around management and moderation, dealing with problem commenters, arguments and 'trolls', but Zamora proposed that publishers and community managers should try to think more creatively.

"Instead of thinking strictly about comments as posts by readers," she said, "we should be more imaginative and creative about conversation and community."

To do this, she proposed three areas where websites could be more creative. While "not definitive", she hoped they would spur ways to think differently about the online commenting experience.

Design

"Important design is not only in the aesthetics of comments or conversation but in user experience," she said, "and if you're trying to elevate conversation discourse think about what you want readers to contribute."

The Washington Post feature 'Make Your Case: Internet surveillance' was given as a great example of how design could guide the debate to create a constructive commenting experience, she said, rather than having people comment on the story without reading it or respond to each other in personal debate.

Readers are first invited to vote on whether the US government should be allowed to monitor the "personal internet data of US citizens", before being asked to leave a comment and rating other readers' comments.

wapo surveillance
Screenshot from WashingtonPost.com

These three steps to the page are  "explicitly laid out for the reader", Zamora later told Journalism.co.uk, to create a different type of conversation that is more focussed on the issue at hand.

"There's a construct to that flow that leads to a constructive dialogue," she said.

"When you design this construct for people speaking to the issue, what you have are comments that actually address the issue and don't then get devolved into that tangential and low-quality conversation."

The behaviour of rating or 'upvoting' comments was also beneficial in this case, she said, as it "provides an incentive for people to be thoughtful in their contribution" where readers "see that the community appreciates or is endorsing their contribution".

"So in this case, for a website where politics is a key part of the coverage, where those sort of hot button issues are so easily taken over by not the most constructive conversation, it's helpful for people to have that added incentive," she said.

Context

Contextualising comments by letting readers annotate stories with their reactions or thoughts was another way to "elevate the level of discourse", said Zamora, speaking at the conference.

"When people are responding to something specific they tend to ground their reactions or opinions in more specific ways," she said.

Speaking to Journalism.co.uk, Zamora described publishing platform Medium as the best and most regular example of "annotated, contextual comments" in allowing readers to leave comments on paragraphs, but ProPublica has been experimenting with a similar system in Readrboard.

Pro Publica opened up Readrboard comments for one story about gun laws, letting readers leave 'reactions' to points and paragraphs as they read as well as the traditional comment box at the end of the story.

pro pub readrboard
Screenshot from ProPublica.org

The ProPublica team was initially concerned that readers would leave problematic comments or would think less of the "traditional commenting experience", but instead "it was very much an additional and different line of engagement," she told Journalism.co.uk.

"You're framing it a little bit and giving them a starting place and guiding them towards a response, as opposed to just saying it's a free for all and say whatever you want."

With Readrboard, commenters can add comments to go with their reactions adding an extra layer of interaction and engagement with the story, although only one person has so far chosen to do this on ProPublica's gun law story.

"It's interesting because this person is responding to the substance of the article," she said, "and it's another way to try to make the content the springboard for the conversation. Rather than superficial things or politics or some other point of deviation that are common to comment streams."

Structure

The third way to think more creatively about the commenting experience for readers was by structuring the comments in a way that could feed back into the story itself.

For the ProPublica investigation into internships, people who had been on such placements through particular schools or universities were invited to share more information on them, alongside a rating of the experience, the level of support received and whether it was paid or not.

propub intern backend
Screenshot from ProPublica.org

"For us, we want reader contributions to inform the story," she said. "So with the internships [project] when you find out what school they went to, whether they were paid or not, these are all data points that tell me something and give context to their opinion and comment."

By creating a system which can feed directly back into the story, as with the ratings, the commenting experience takes on a more positive and productive role for the journalist as well as the reader, she said.

"It changes the dynamic of comments in the sense that it's not just about a broad conversation," said Zamora, "we're trying to guide it back to the story and learn something more about the story."

In this example the commenting and rating system was built using the Disqus API combined with an internal piece of programming for ratings, a system which Zamora said ProPublica intends to make open source for other publications to use.

"You can imagine a story about the minimum wage and asking people to explain from their perspective, their struggle to make ends meet," she said.

"So what is their wage? What is their industry? And then come up with a couple of data points that inform the qualitative response that people are giving, so it's grounded in these data points that you can start to sort and filter the comment thread by."

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