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Reuters recently announced it is scrapping comments underneath news articles, prompting fierce debate about the value of reader interaction and whether comments have a future in the age of social media.

In a post on the subject, the global newswire said that "the idea of comments on a website must give way to new realities of behaviour in the marketplace".

Other news organisations have done the same, including the Chicago Sun-Times which described comments as "an embarrassing mishmash of fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing". The Huffington Post, meanwhile, decided to scrap anonymous comments last year.

Mathew Ingram, a senior writer at Gigaom, said the debate about the role of comments has split the digital journalism community down the middle, with "strong opposition and strong proponents on the other side".

He told Journalism.co.uk: "It's a very contentious issue. It's something people feel very strongly about. My argument is if you have a website at all, why wouldn't you give people the ability to comment on your content?"

The shift to social media

One of the arguments put forward by Reuters was that "much of the well-informed and articulate discussion around news, as well as criticism or praise for stories, has moved to social media and online forums".

My argument is if you have a website at all, why wouldn't you give people the ability to comment on your content?Matthew Ingram, Gigaom
Charles Arthur, a freelance journalist and former technology editor at the Guardian, says "the difference with Twitter, I think, is that it’s a conversation: there’s always the chance that you can have a rational discussion, which seems often to be almost impossible in comments".

He told Journalism.co.uk: "People prefer to spend their comments, to make their point, in a place that will be valuable to them. Why would you want to be the 133rd person to leave a comment on a story? Why would I spend my time here? What actually is the benefit to me?"

However, Ingram said it should be not be a case of picking one or the other: self-hosted comments or Twitter and Facebook.

"Obviously Twitter and Facebook are very useful and it is a great way to interact with an individual writer or other people who feel the same about a piece of comment," he said. "But not everyone belongs to those networks.

"When Facebook logins are required to comment, lots of people simply don't comment. They don't want those comments to be attached to their Facebook or for other people to see them. That excludes a significant proportion of people.

"It requires your readers to go and do a fair amount to find you, to follow you, to search for other people talking about the same thing."

He also warned against giving too much power to a third-party social network: "Doing that effectively gives a lot of value, the value that's in your relationship with your readers, to Twitter or Facebook, which I think is a mistake.

When you find people who make those useful comments, you treasure themCharles Arthur, freelance technology journalist
"If you believe like I do that, for media sites in particular, your relationship with your readers is one of the most significant kinds of value that you have, maybe even the most important, then I think it's a mistake to hand over a lot of that value and the control over that relationship to third-party companies."

Rewarding the best comments

In a recent blog post, Arthur argued that insightful commenters need to feel rewarded for their work.

He told Journalism.co.uk: "When you find people who make those useful comments, you treasure them. In the long term you have to ask whether the way that news sites look at curating comments is not the right way of doing it.

"There's an entire hinterland which is being explored of how you could make [those] comments better, but none of the news sites have gone at that in any big way.

"Reddit has the idea of karma, Slashdot has the fact that you could be voted up or voted down. They're places that started with programmers who had the idea of putting value on to comments – those tend to function very well.

"Whether it's just too expensive [for news organisations to develop something similar] or the benefits are not high enough, I think there's a big question there. Possibly the DNA of news organisations is not the same as Slashdot and Reddit, and possibly the two will never come together.

"Until there's some sort of system – some sort of incentive/disincentive mechanism, I think comments will be in essence broken. They're not doing the function you would like them to be doing: to enhance your understanding of a story, to bring a bit of extra knowledge to something."

Ingram added: "Most publishers have not paid any attention to comments whatsoever. It's a dumping ground at the bottom of an article where people just pile in. No one looks at them, no one responds to them. If anything they haven't given enough attention to them.

"What you see with sites that consistently do comments very well, is they spend a lot of time in those comments, responding to people, moderating and in some cases highlighting good comments as a way of indicating the type of behaviour that they want to have.

"In sites with strong reader communities, readers themselves do the moderation because they want that community to be beneficial."

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