Don’t quit on online comments just yet

No one ever likes the kid who stomps his feet and says “I’m taking my ball and going home.”

But somehow newspapers have become that kid, especially when it comes to online comments on their website.

Sure, that may be too simplistic an explanation, but consider this: Newspapers made the decision a while ago set comments loose and when they didn’t turn out the way they like they started threatening to end the whole game.

Sound familiar?

It’s no secret that online comments on news sites can be a babbling pool of filth, ignorance and bad grammar, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that some are considering doing away with comments or drastically changing how they handle them.

In a recent article in the American Journalism Review Rem Rieder argues that it’s long past time to end comments permanently.

The crux of his argument is this: Newspapers don’t have the resources or the time, and comments have proven to be nothing but trouble anyway.

But Rieder and others looking to shut down comments seem to miss one point, which is that comments are lowest impact way for newspapers to offer the community a way to interact with them. And if you shut that off you’re making a conscious decision to walk away from connecting with readers.

Of course some would argue that we don’t want to connect with readers after hearing what they think given the filter-killing gift that is anonymity on most sites. There are countless examples of readers hijacking comments, taking them off-topic, attacking people involved in stories or the journalists who wrote them.

The truth is that yes, sometimes people can be crap. Our readers, the ones we fight for to get information out of government officials, are not always nice or particularly thoughtful.

So let’s begin by facing up to the fact that humanity can be a downer some times, it’s human nature. And maybe that’s what ruffles some journalists. After you’ve been down in the mine of objectivity for a long time you can get disconnected from the fact that many people carry grudges, biases and fears.

And maybe that’s why journalists don’t want to deal with online comments, because it means having to get in the pool with everyone else, including the tubby, unshaven guy in the Toby Keith T-shirt who has his own ideas on what “the illegals” should do.

But if the original intent behind online comments was to encourage discussion among readers and create a community, jumping in the pool is exactly what we have to do.

Newspaper sites need more than moderators, they need something like a host, who doesn’t just moderate or ban, but encourages discussion. Making a bigger commitment to comments shows that the newspaper – and its staff – are part of the same community as readers.

If online comments are such a bane, how come they flourish on blogs and others sites while bottoming out at newspapers?

Consider the Huffington Post or Gawker, which have both doubled-down on comments by offering incentives and a share of responsibility to readers. Both see comments as more than added value to stories, but as a way of connecting with their audience and building community. And in a recent survey by the Reynolds Journalism Institute some community news sites said comments were the best way to reach out to the community.

This is typically the part where someone says newspapers don’t have the money or manpower (or willpower) to make wrangling comments a real job. But anyone who’s been inside a newspaper knows that staffing comes down to what’s important, and often that means beat reporters and photographers. And there is nothing wrong with that. But if newspapers want to innovate, fully utilize their websites and connect with readers, isn’t it time to make a commitment to comments?

No, it’s not going to be easy and there’s no Chicago Manual of Style to follow. In fact it’ll likely be awkward and difficult at times. But doesn’t that sound familiar to hounding sources, scratching away at documents and scrambling for deadline? If we never expected journalism to be easy before, it certainly won’t be now.


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