Christopher Altchek first realized how difficult it is to manage a community of commenters in early 2012 when his news publication Mic (then operating under the name PolicyMic) was linked to by the Drudge Report, the conservative news powerhouse.
“We had a really robust and really high-quality commenting section and commenting community. And that Drudge link really blew that community apart pretty quickly,” Altchek recalled in an interview with Mashable. Hundreds of thousands of new readers “who didn’t care about Mic” flooded the comments section. “That was the first moment we realized that if we are going to scale the community, we are going to need to spend a lot of time on it.”
Nearly three years later, Altchek and his team at Mic finally decided it was no longer worth the time for writers and editors to focus on the traditional comments section. Much of the discussion had shifted to social networks in the intervening years, Altchek said, making the comments section seem more and more like a relic. On Wednesday, Mic informed readers that it had “removed the ability to comment on stories within the article page.”
“Like any good product,” he said, “when a feature is no longer needed, you get rid of it.”
If there was a time when nixing the comment section was controversial, it appears to have come to an end. Popular Science received a fair amount of criticism for doing away with its comments in late 2013, citing the difficulty of dealing with “trolls and spambots.” In recent weeks, though, several notable publications like Mic have followed in Popular Science’s footsteps.
Reuters removed the comment section on all of its news stories in early November, though it left the option in tact for opinion pieces and blogs. Re/code killed off comments later that month, followed by The Week and Mic. The reason cited by most is that the real discussion is now on social.
“It is no longer a core service of news sites to provide forums for these conversations,” Ben Frumin, editor-in-chief of The Week, explained in a post this month. “Instead, we provide the ideas, the fodder, the jumping-off point, and readers take it to Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or any number of other places to continue the conversation.”
For some publications, the decision to eliminate comments also was about getting a burden off their shoulders.
“When [comments] were on the site, we felt like we had a responsibility to make sure they were within certain bounds,” Dan Colarusso, executive editor of Reuters Digital, told Mashable. Several staff members were responsible for managing the comments as part of their jobs, but there were still concerns about whether Reuters could keep the comment section clean. Or as Colarusso put it,
“It’s like when you invite someone to your house, you want to make sure the bathroom is clean.”
There are, of course, many publications (including Mashable) that still allow and encourage commenting on site and across social media. The Guardian, for example, now receives more than 1 million comments a month, and has a dedicated staff of full-time employees and freelancers responsible for overseeing those comments 24 hours a day.
“There are undoubtedly conversations happening on social that we need to be aware of as a newsroom … But these are all different segments of our existing or potential audience,” said Laura Oliver, social and community editor at The Guardian UK. “Comments and the people who post them on our site are also a part of our audience, a very highly engaged part, and we shouldn’t ignore the relationship that we have with this part of the audience through this type of participation on TheGuardian.com.”
At its best, the comment section can serve as a vibrant and insightful community that provides value to the reader, as well as the writer. There may be no better example of this than the commenters that Ta-Nehisi Coates has at The Atlantic. After winning an award for his work last year, he thanked his commenters for informing and correcting him when necessary. At its worst, the comments can be a disaster filled with incendiary and meaningless statements from the trolls and spambots about which Popular Science complained.
Some newer publications have attempted to re-think comments. Quartz launched without a commenting option, and later launched the option to leave annotations in the margins of articles. Vox has a CMS that can reportedly “identify problem commentators through word identification.” And Gawker Media has been developing a more robust commenting platform called Kinja, though it appears to be experiencing growing pains.
Whatever the approach — eliminating comments, rethinking comments or keeping the status quo — media watchers say the key issue for journalism outlets is how responsive and engaged they are with readers.
“Have ’em, don’t have ’em. Both are defensible,” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, said in an email. “What matters is how interactive and reachable the editors and authors are, and how committed they are to a two-way relationship with readers.”
By this standard, some outlets like Reuters may still have more work to do. Colarusso, the executive editor of Reuters Digital, said the news service is taking more of a hands-off approach to the discussion taking place on social media. “Let the crowd be responsible for it,” he said at one point in an interview with Mashable. Later he added, “We have not encouraged writers to go out there, and police our social media platforms.”
If readers do feel the need to note a factual error with a story, Colarusso said they can still send Reuters an email.
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Source Credits: Seth Fiegarman | Mashable