The Financial Times published a series called 'Management's missing women' in April, a collection of interviews, data analysis and reader contributions looking at how women still occupy a fraction of managerial positions in big companies, despite how talked about corporate diversity initiatives are.
When the first story in the series was published, the tone of the comments people left about the gender pay gap "started off a bit condescending", said Lilah Raptopoulos, the FT's community manager, who focuses on on-site reader engagement.
But instead of just deleting the inappropriate or offensive comments or ignoring them, Raptopoulos and the team of moderators at the FT jumped in to remind people about the commenting guidelines of the organisation.
When a comment did get deleted, moderators would explain why that decision has been made and that they should be more respectful towards their peers. The tone shifted quickly and led to many contributions from female readers working in finance.
There are a lot of people commenting, but when you are responding to them, you are not just responding to that one person but also to everyone else reading the commentsLilah Raptopoulos, FT
"It reminds people that there is an active presence [in the comments] and that we care about civility and the conversation staying productive," she told Journalism.co.uk.
In her job, Raptopoulos focuses on the comments strategy as well as reader participation beyond the comment section, working with desks across the newsroom to develop stories and projects that take into account readers' input as early as the commissioning stages.
The FT has done a few stories so far focused on involving readers, including The Future of Britain, a project aimed at answering important questions about the future of Britain post-Brexit; working with the paper's Lex column, about corporate and financial investments, to generate daily discussions about their stories and inviting reader contributions; and The Europopulists, a series produced in collaboration with a Dutch newspaper, asking readers to share insights into populist and political attitude changes in their neighbourhoods.
With 'Management's missing women', the stories readers were sharing in the comments, about their experiences with occupying or applying for senior roles and diversity initiatives in their companies, were eventually curated and published as a standalone part of the series on the website.
Determining what questions would yield valuable responses from readers was part of the conversation between Raptopoulos and the editor, at the commissioning stages of the project.
Looking at how the gender gap at managing level is still an issue for women in finance and technology, they wanted to know why the diversity programmes corporations have in place are not working so well, and whether readers had experienced or were aware of attempts to improve the situation in their respective workplaces.
Once that was established, the FT put a call out inviting readers to fill out a questionnaire to talk about their experiences and become part of the reporting process by providing story ideas and insights. Some people who responded became sources or eventually had their story included in the final piece.
There are two ways to approach reader participation, Raptopoulos said. For some stories, you are inviting people to contribute because there is already a lot of interest in the topic and your aim is to diversify perspectives or improve the tone of the conversation.
For other projects, newsrooms may be trying to build a community where one doesn't currently exist, around a certain issue, which is where you should be really clear about what you are trying to do and how readers' stories will be used.
Depending on which of the two the organisation is trying to achieve at a given time, the strategy varies.
"Jumping in and asking questions tends to be day to day, in response to a flurry of activity in the comments of a story.
"Around the broader participation projects, which start much earlier in the commissioning process, I would join the early meetings around a big investigation, a series or a project.
"I think carefully with the editor and reporters about what we, as journalists, want to know more about from our readers in regards to that topic and what would be valuable to ask them to help with."
They need to get to know us and we need to get to know them and show them that we're listening, and this is a clear and easy way to do itLilah Raptopoulos, FT
The FT places an emphasis on comments because they are a valuable tool both editorially and commercially, she added. Editorially, they help build trust with readers, become story leads or sources, give direct feedback to FT's reporting and connect people.
"I like to remind reporters that there are a lot of people commenting, but when you are responding to them you are not just responding to that one person but also to everyone else reading the comments. So the interactions that happen there are valuable to everyone who is quietly paying attention."
On the commercial side, the FT's internal audience research and reader surveys have shown "a strong link" between comments and engagement. People who write comments are, on average, seven times more engaged than those who don't, so they spend more time on the website, read more stories and return more often.
People who read the comments are also six times more engaged than those who don't, and an individual's level of engagement increases and remains consistent after they have left their first comment. Interestingly enough, the FT has a higher percentage of subscribers who read the comments but don't write any of their own.
"Our goal is to have those readers participate and have those who aren't reading [the comments] starting to read them.
"[Comments] are the most direct link we have with our readers and I think it's important for every news organisation to build long term relationships with their readers, especially now.
"They need to get to know us and we need to get to know them and show them that we're listening, and this is a clear and easy way to do it."
The organisation is looking into possibilities of taking a similar approach to that of The Europopulists project for the upcoming German and Italian elections.
"How do you reach beyond your own readership and bring in voices from outside of it?" said Raptopoulos.
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