Since the Knight Foundation awarded $3.89 million (£2.67m) in funding to The Coral Project, a joint partnership between The Washington Post, The New York Times and Mozilla, in June 2014, the team has been hard at work to improve and keep alive what many other outlets are increasingly deciding to drop: online commenting on stories.
The Post, NYT and Mozilla signed up journalists, designers and developers to build a suite of open-source products and tools that could be used individually or collectively by news outlets to create a better space for their readers to interact online.
The Coral Project team has already developed the first of these products, called Trust, which is now in the early stages of being tested with the existing commenting systems at The Post and NYT before it becomes available to the wider public.
Trust is an app that wants to make use of a user's previous comment contributions on the site by deriving value from them: what does it mean if a person is a frequent commenter, or someone who replies to other people's comments, or even someone who wants to improve that space for fellow commenters by flagging inappropriate information?
What we're leaving on the table is information about users that we could be using to better effect, such as someone feeling the need to flag a comment because they care about the communityGreg Barber, Washington Post
The Post has people in-house who oversee and monitor the comment section, and the outlet also works with an outside moderation team, said Greg Barber, the outlet's director of digital news projects and head of strategy and partnerships at The Coral Project.
But a moderator's action only goes as far as seeing a comment that has been flagged by a reader and then deciding whether or not it should be approved or deleted.
"For the moment, that's the end of the value we get from that action.
"But what we're leaving on the table is information about users that we could be using to better effect, such as someone feeling the need to flag a comment because they care about the community – that's a piece of information we have about a reader that we're not doing anything with."
Barber said The Washington Post is trying to connect these insights to "tell a story about a user's journey with us over time" and turn them into "actionable data" to improve the process and experience of commenting on articles.
"One of the things we want to do at The Post and equip publishers to do at Coral is to be able to separate a signal from the noise.
"That means finding those people who are contributing thoughtfully, with personal stories, who are not coming to bully or troll, and highlight their contributions."
By looking at its analytics, the outlet has found users who comment on the site are also its most loyal readers, people who stay on the site longer than average, who return more often and access more pages per visit – "the definition of engaged".
"We want to return the favour and give them a space where they interact and share ideas," Barber told Journalism.co.uk.
He said every news organisation who is interested in learning more about their audience should look not only at their commenters, but also comment readers, "people who consume that space as content – they're a surprisingly loyal group".
The second product currently being developed by The Coral Project is Ask, a system for receiving user-generated content and contributions from readers, designed to work for non-live, scheduled events, similarly to Guardian Witness or anniversary pieces done by news outlets.
"It would be valuable to know, even in a non-live scenario, which users have participated to our call-outs in the past and what the tenure of those contributions has been.
"For news outlets where UGC call-outs aren't done as part of the comments, it's like having a short term memory – a human can't remember what each commenter has contributed, ever."
Ask would allow a publisher to create a form asking a question or setting an assignment for readers, who submit information that is collected into a database, then moved into a moderation/curation module and ultimately published on the site, ideally in the same space where the call-out was originally posted.
The third and final product The Coral Project will develop during its grant period which ends in June 2017 will be Talk, essentially a version of Ask but for live contributions and events.
"We're looking to build these products so they can stand alone, but they can also be used together as a package.
There isn't that kind of value that could be if people knew someone was paying attentionGreg Barber, Washington Post
"For example Trust can connect with Talk so a publisher would be able to manage comments, but also find and highlight its most valuable users and interact with them.
"But it's also entirely possible a news organisation would use Trust just for its analytics feature and not trigger any actions directly, or they might want to connect it to their existing commenting system."
Two weeks ago on 25 May, The Post published a survey on its site, conducted in partnership with the Engaging News Project from the University of Texas in Austin, asking commenters and comment readers of washingtonpost.com about their experience on the website.
The survey, which is still open at the moment of publication, asks people questions such as how often they comment, what percentage of the articles they read they also comment on, and what type of stories they tend to comment on.
But the outlet also encouraged participants to leave direct feedback by commenting on the page the survey was posted on. At the time of writing, there were 454 comments from people providing suggestions about how The Post can make the commenting experience better for them, with replies from Barber and other Post staff.
"We had a similar back and forth with people when Coral was announced and a lot of the ideas they gave us, I took and turned into a spreadsheet listed by topic and suggestion.
"We've used ideas from that spreadsheet both for The Coral Project and Washington Post for the past two years."
The next step is partnering with other news organisations in the US to conduct the survey nation-wide and draw further feedback and insights about what people expect in the comment spaces.
"The way in which comments are structured now, on most sites, is not the best user experience.
"It's unclear what the organisation is looking to get from the reader, and in many cases there isn't any direct participation from the publisher or any process for highlighting good contributions.
"There isn't that kind of value that could be if people knew someone was paying attention," Barber said.
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