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The 2016 Global Report on Online Commenting, Chapter 4: Evolving best practices

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The 2016 Global Report on Online Commenting, Chapter 4: Evolving best practices

Between the news organisations shutting down comments and those reaping their benefits, a large majority (82%) is still trying to get comments to work.

In the WEF survey, more than half (60%) of the organisations surveyed have changed the way they manage and host commenting in the last three years. The most cited changes were increased moderation, limiting topics open to comments, reducing the number of articles open for commenting and restricting who can comment. Even those who have shut down commenting are continuing to explore ways to engage and connect with their readers.


Think through the big questions and make commenting a priority

“In the last few years, commenting has not been very important; it has been de-emphasised. And frankly, when you don’t moderate and don’t invest, you don’t get a lot out of it – it’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” said Nicholas Dawes, former Chief Editorial and Content Officer of India’s Hindustan Times, which is undergoing a redesign of its website and is exploring ways to better incorporate commenting on its site.

The same goes for Al Jazeera, where Senior Digital Product Manager Dwayne Oxford is working on securing a budget to hire a team and acquire the necessary technology. “Right now we have zero people doing [moderation],” said Oxford. “We are now getting to that tipping point to have the resource to address this issue.”

For Coral Project’s Losowsky, the largest question surrounding comments is a philosophical one that many news organisations have been too busy to ask as they try to stay afloat: What is your journalistic vision and what is the role of the audience in that mission?

Many don’t have a clear answer and gave generic ones that could be summed up in consumption terms: read our news, share it and pay us. “It has to do with the state of media, but if that is the limit of what you do, then it ignores a lot of changes in the authority and connectivity that have come with the growth of the Internet where people look for and expect a different relationship than they did before. And newsrooms have to adapt to make readers feel connected to their journalistic missions,” said Losowsky.

For The New York Times, the goal of having a commenting section is clear. “We have to treat comment as content,” Etim told the audience at the Columbia University workshop on commenting. “People come to our site specifically for our editorial judgment and so our job is to create more of that and to almost give them the impression that they are being judged by a Times editor, just like our journalists.”

“We can’t cede all to social [platforms], there is a place for us as news organisations to play, too,” said Etim. “By elevating thoughtlessness, by giving voice to stupidity, we don’t promote the marketplace of ideas. If we have to force our most thoughtful visitor to adopt aggressive counter-trolling tactics, we deprive them of their ability to change their mind, to be open to perspectives and open their hearts.”

Start small and be focused

After shutting down commenting due to extensive Russian trolling, Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung is now organising three to five topics a day for focused discussion with its readers. It also polls its readers for story ideas and questions about its reporting. For its groundbreaking Panama Papers reports, after receiving questions from its readers, the paper reacted by answering and packaging the answers into several follow-up news reports. “It’s an enormous resource,” said Krach of Süddeutsche Zeitung. “We are convinced it is worthwhile doing, maintaining this connection to readers.”

WEF’s research found that news organisations with a healthy commenting space tend to have clear community guidelines and take a strong proactive approach towards upholding those guidelines. They either pre-moderate every comment or have an aggressive post-moderation system in place where they closely monitor the conversation.

“The main thing about civility, is to show that there is an adult in the room,” said Etim. “We have to be willing to stop accepting content from users, if it does not reflect our mission, while understanding that the mission of a news organisation, especially nowadays, is conversations. So when readers come to your comment section, the first and every time, they have to see a reflection of the same content they arrive for.”

Several news organisations are also taking effort to educate their readers about what is accepted and not accepted as comments. Besides posting community guidelines or even showing it to commenters before each post, publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian have also designed games to give their readers a try at approving or rejecting comments and explaining the rationale behind each decision.

Moderation takes effort and often requires full-time staff. The key is to do what your resources allow you to do. After conducting a comprehensive study of its comments, The Guardian decided to cut down the number of places where comments are open on stories relating to a few particularly contentious subjects, such as migration and race, so as to keep a closer watch on conversations that are more likely to attract abuse.

In the WEF study, more than half (55%) of the news organisations surveyed open all their articles for commenting. In contrast, The New York Times only chooses 10% of the articles it publishes for comments on a daily basis.

The selection of the articles open for commenting at The New York Times depends on news value, reader interest, whether the topic has recently been open for commenting and the ability of the comment moderators to oversee the discussion. For example, stories that are explosive may not be open for commenting if similar topics have been recently commented on. Etim will also delay offering the opportunity to comment if he anticipates a story will need a lot of moderation, thereby avoiding lengthy waiting times. “We are never looking for volume, we are always looking for what’s going to add value,” said Etim.

Timing also matters. The Guardian only opens articles for three days of commenting while The New York Times only makes it available for 24 hours.

“We will never put an article on Israel-Palestine on Facebook on a Friday afternoon,” said Stinne Andreasen, Digital Editor for Danish paper Kristeligt Dagblad, which closely moderates comments using the Facebook platform. “The tone and debate are very harsh and sometimes there are threats, so we definitely think twice every time we host something, we make sure there is a person who can control the debate.”

Besides limiting the scope of commenting, some publications are considering limiting who can comment and potentially use that as an up-sell to their readers. RBS in Brazil has decided to move to a semi-closed system, to allow only subscribers to comment in the hope that a more trusted environment with real names and email would foster a better conversation.

However, requiring real name registration may not necessarily encourage better quality conversations and could potentially discourage those with minority opinions from speaking out.

Encourage and reward good commenting behaviour

Etim of The New York Times recommends that news organisations start small, even if just one article is open for comment a day. The aim is to attract valuable readers. “First, build up your community, then deputise them to keep that republic. What you see is that if you give people a reason to buy in, they are able to do that as long as you keep the task achievable for them.”

The New York Times has a system of “verified commenter” that rewards people who comment more and with a high approval rating, because their comments can go up without moderation. A similar class system has also been used by other news organisations such as Gawker, which surprisingly led to improved quality and a rebound in quantity after an initial drop.

At Reddit, which boasts one of the largest online discussion communities, vetted users are even given moderation powers such as deleting comments, banning users and even hosting an “Ask me anything” session with U.S. President Barak Obama. When the Financial Times invitedits commenter Nicholas Barrett to write an opinion piece after a viral post-Brexit comment, it was another example showing commenters that providing thoughtful comments could lead to something bigger.

Designing a site to be comment friendly, allowing community up-votes and down-votes, and showcasing well-written comments are also ways to promote good behaviour.

At The New York Times, the redesign of its website in 2011 increased the number of comments it received by nearly 80% and receiving a recommendation or being selected as a ‘NYT Pick’ greatly increased the number of times a commenter posted, according to the Engaging News Project’s research on commenter behaviour.

“If one of our comments has a lot of up votes, we would promote and highlight the comment on our sites, so instead of a journalist quote on the site, we would have a commenter’s quote,” said Karlsten from Sweden who had worked as Head of Social Media at Expressen and run an online experiment site ajour. “It would be a commenter’s treat; if I put up a good comment, I would be put up on there just as the journalist [would be].”

Another proven way to improve civility in the comment space is to engage journalists in the conversation. In the WEF survey, of the news organisations that allow commenting, more than half (65%) said that their journalists and editors read the comments. Yet when pressed further, very few have their journalists regularly participate in the conversation, citing issues of time, workload and willingness.

Look continuously for a better technical solution

Most of the news organisations interviewed are using supplier solutions for managing the commenting function. Yet many are dissatisfied with the technological solutions available: the limited functionality and flexibility, and the potential conflict of interest in terms of advertising sales. Several are moving towards revamping their website, changing their supplier, looking for semantic filtering technology or developing their own commenting system.

Trench, formerly of News24, has now moved on to Times Media Group, which also has a limited commenting function and is now looking for a technical solution. While opening up select articles offers a temporary solution, he felt that it does not serve the purpose because people would get used to the fact that you are not open for comment. “What I really prefer is a more robust technical solution where you can serve comment of value rather than pouring a massive amount of manual labour into it.”

In general, publishers are also looking for technology with artificial intelligence and self-learning capabilities. La Naçion in Argentina is currently trying out semantic tools, while Al Jazeera is hoping to look into technology that can implement sentiment analysis and identify nasty comments. A team from Stanford and Cornell is also in the process of developing a technology which can predict if someone is a troll by reading their first five posts.

Others such as the Philippines Star are looking to revamp their websites and install a proprietary commenting system linked to Facebook, so that they have better control over its data and potentially a source of revenue in the future.

“For many journalists, readers are just one big opaque group. If you have a lot of commenters, how do you filter and find the best? This should not be manual.  We are in a digital world; we should make technology work for us,” said Sweden’s Karlsten.

Coral Project is trying to do just that. The team is in the process of developing three open-source tools to help news organisations better engage with their audiences.

To help news organisations solicit comments and curate conversation in a much more efficient manner, the team has developed a tool, “Ask”, which has just launched. It is also developing “Trust”, which aims to solve the problem of identifying different types of commenters so as to take greater control of the commenting space, and “Talk”, which will connect journalists with sources and build a network of interested communities.

Build a community and incorporate comments into content

Those that have already built a robust comment community are leveraging more of their comment into resources for content and sustainability goals.

Aligning with The New York Times’ strategy to double its digital revenue by 2020 and to focus on its loyal readers, Etim is building an anchor website for the commenters and scaling up the number of articles open for commenting from the current 10% to hopefully 50% with the same number of staff. He is working on incorporating automation and machine-learning technology to increase his team’s productivity. “We are going to try to build out an ideal version of Quora and Reddit combined that works for The New York Times,” said Etim.

In addition, he is working on turning comments into content. “We hope we will be able to take our focus off moderating every comment on civility and more on how to package comment as a useful sidebar for New York Times articles,” said Etim. Recently, The New York Times published a piece on Muslim women’s reaction towards France’s controversial burkini ban using almost all reader comments.

“Creating content is very expensive in a place like The New York Times,” said Etim. “If we play it right, [comments] can add to the content level of the Times without spending an equal amount of money.”


Chia Lun Huang


2016-10-17 08:08

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