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The 2016 Global Report on Online Commenting, Chapter 3: Successful cases of The New York Times and Dawn

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The 2016 Global Report on Online Commenting, Chapter 3: Successful cases of The New York Times and Dawn

While many are turning off commenting, a handful of media organisations seem to have figured out how to manage and create good commenting spaces.

During the study, The New York Times was the most mentioned model to which many news organisations around the world aspire. The high quality of the comments and rich discussions are the key elements that many news organisations mentioned to WEF. The commenting community is so robust that The New York Times began writing about its own commenting community, profiling some of its top commenters, even featuring comments on the centre of its homepage.

Building a quality commenting community: The New York Times

Commenting only became possible at The New York Times in 2007 when comments were enabled on news stories. Currently, about 10% of its articles are open for comment on a daily basis.

“Our goal, way back, was to have a section that mirrored the ‘letter to the editor’,” said Bassey Etim, Community Editor. He was hired in 2008 to scale up the commenting section. “We wanted very, very good responses, and we were literally copy-editing [comments] before we put it up on the NYT Picks.”

From the beginning, Etim’s team manually pre-moderated every comment and rejected some for bad grammar or messy logic. However, as the newsroom became more digitally-oriented and the number of comments increased from 1,000 to the now 11,000 a day, the approval rate went up from 50% to about 85%, though an hour’s wait for approval is not unusual.

“We still have pretty stringent standards, we try to police civility, and we’ve trained the trolls that you have no chance here, so the vast majority of the comments we get here are very good,” said Etim.  

At The New York Times, clear guidelines have been written about the type of comments they look for and what they delete. The paper’s public editors also frequently address concerns lodged by commenters. In addition to carefully managing the commenting space, Etim tries to attract a wide spectrum of perspectives. He is also working hard to create a space where minorities are willing and feel comfortable voicing unpopular opinions by ensuring neither name-calling nor abuse takes place in the space.

“No matter how abhorrent the opinion, we try to get each strand into the conversation,” said Etim at a workshop on commenting at Columbia University last year. In an example, he related his shock at some of the comments submitted on an article where a woman was abused on video. Yet, he still picked a few that were decent enough to reflect a different perspective and the resulting discourse was extremely lively. “It’s a service to our reader and also a journalistic duty we have,” he said.

Making the business case: Dawn

The comment section is actually adding revenue to the bottom line at The New York Times. “Despite all the investment we put in, it is profitable. It’s not a giant profit centre but it does well on the subscription business,” said Etim, meaning commenters were transforming into paying subscribers of the paper.

Research has shown that increased engagement such as commenting can lead to higher rates of subscription. By using a concept of “ladder of participation” and in prompting a visitor to gradually increase their social engagement from visitor to reader to commenter to moderator, content websites can more readily convert site visitors into paying customers, according to an MIT-Sloan article entitled “Turning content viewers into subscribers.”

The New York Times is not the only one reaping benefits. Pakistan’s Dawn, which does not have a paywall and opens all articles to commenting, prides itself as the digital platform for quality debate, especially between Indians and Pakistanis, two historic arch-rivals. “We created a space for people to talk, dialogues which were not possible face to face,” said Jahanzaib Haque, Chief Digital Strategist and Editor at Dawn.

Haque is able to do so within a tightly managed commenting space, which was implemented in 2014. A team of four moderators reads every single one of the average 3,000 comments it receives each day before they are published, and anything that does not add to the conversation, such as one-word comment, is deleted. The current deletion rate is about 35%. It also has a four-person Facebook team that bans users posting offensive comments.

“Because we can’t delete on Facebook, it’s one-strike out policy,” said Haque. The commenting policy is reviewed almost every three months to adapt to the fast-paced changes in the cyberworld. “We would rather have more trolls deleted, than have more comments go through which can be part of gaming the system,” said Haque.

The benefit of a tightly managed commenting space is marketing. While Haque declined to give specific numbers, he said that since the implementation of pre-moderation, the time spent onsite went from 6.5 minutes to 9 minutes per user, a significant difference for marketers and advertisers.

“Anyone who is bitching about comments is making a big mistake,” said Haque. “They are not looking at the right metrics.”


Chia Lun Huang


2016-10-17 08:09

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