Adriana Lacy runs a regular newsletter called The Intersection, looking at where news, product and tech overlap. She is also an audience engagement editor of LA Times. This article first appeared on The Intersection newsletter on 14 January 2019 and has been republished with the author's permission.
A little under a year ago, the Wall Street Journal announced that it would make commenting a subscriber benefit. The publisher saw it as a way to "elevate discourse" on the site. Instead of the traditional "moderator", the Journal would have audience voice reporters.
Comments would be limited to only a few articles each day, with journalists encouraged to hop in and interact with readers.
This past year, we have seen a lot of publishers start to really define what a comment section looks like in the digital age. My own employer, the Los Angeles Times, partnered with the Coral Project for a better commenting tool "designed to bring readers and journalists together to share tips and compare notes".
Yet, 2019 also saw two publications close their comments section for good. Crosscut, located in the Pacific Northwest, closed their comments section, citing "the rise of social platforms and an uptick in threatening comments".
- People have myriad ways these days to discuss the news — without Crosscut moderating what is said. We share our stories on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to foster conversation, and we will continue to do that.
- The time spent moderating comments could instead be invested in finding more meaningful ways to listen and talk with you.
Oregon Live’s decision to close comments was rooted in an analysis of its own comments section, where it found that "very few people contribute the vast majority of comments on the site".
In fact, across our company’s websites, which serve 50 million unique visitors in an average month, just 2,340 people produce more than half of the comments. Just 3 per cent of visitors to OregonLive read the comments over a three-month period last summer. A tiny fraction of visitors ever posts a comment.
Similar to Crosscut, Oregon Live pushed the importance of social platforms to engage with its journalism and reporters and also added it will be experimenting with daily live chats.
Resources are always one of the biggest, most important considerations when thinking about how to engage with readers. Seeing that these publications will look to use those moderation resources elsewhere, like live chats, is heartening to see.
However, encouraging readers to do most of their engaging off-platform on social media is a temporary solution to what will be a long-term problem.
We are seeing an industry switch that focuses more on owned-platforms like newsletters, live chats and other editorial products which enable publishers to have more control over the look and feel of how readers engage with its work.
Social media, while important to newsroom strategy, fails to provide a sustainable engagement model. Not to mention, moderation has not been a strong suit for tech companies.
For those on the brink of ending comments in favour of something else, I would encourage you to think critically about what that 'something else' is, how it works long-term and the control that your publication has in the day-to-day engagement.
For those with comments, let’s start to think strategically at how to approach comments, not just from an editorial stance, but also a product and technology stance.
Your comments section is only as good as your strategy.
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