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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

At Digiday, Ricardo Bilton has a piece on a few news orgs’ moves away from comment sections. The Chicago Sun-Times is temporarily killing them off (and yet: “we are working on development of a new commenting system”). Vox launched without comments (though some sort of system is in the works).

I feel like “some news orgs are abandoning comments” is a story that could have been written on any weekday since 1999, but there really is a larger trend at work here around social sharing serving as (a) the place where your readers can sound off, but (b) a way to do it away from your site and (c) a way to do it that actually drives more traffic to your content.

(I’ve considered visually demoting comments on Nieman Lab, if only because a typical story of ours might get 300 tweets, 150 Facebook shares, and one comment. But I haven’t seriously considered killing them off entirely.)

But I wanted to point out that killing or demoting comments can be reasonably done for reasons other than the retrograde “our readers say a bunch of dumb stuff that riles people up.” Note this discussion on Twitter between Chris Littmann, deputy social media editor for Sporting News, and Jamie Mottram, content director for the USA TODAY Sports Media Group. Both Sporting News and the USA Today social sports site For The Win recently killed comments.

For me, that’s a better reason to kill comments: You can only have so many things you ask your reader to do. I’ll leave it to the marketers among us to talk about the all-important CTA — the call to action — but in general, the online business folks say that it’s best to have one single thing that you’re asking your user to do. If that thing is “share this on social media,” a comment box can be a distraction.

Does anybody have any good data on this — whether sharing (or some other desired behavior) increases when comments or other less-desired end-of-article options are stripped away?

— Joshua Benton
What to read next
Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
  • Aaron Bradley

    So For The Win removed comments because people weren’t commenting. Users not engaging with your content? Meh, remove comments and then we won’t be reminded of that fact.

    Then we have Littman arguing that “the audience is so diffuse the conversations were never productive.” So I guess the measure of whether or not comments should exist is some subjective determination of whether or not they produce “productive” conversations.

    Unsurprisingly no mention was made of metrics here. Was the thought that comments were a “distraction” actually quantified – say, by doing an A/B test, or a post-comment removal analysis of sharing before and after? Did any one of these sites try to correlate commenting with any other metric – like their impact on time-on-site, or repeat visits, or shareability (strange but true, but in many publications robust comments actually correlate well with increased sharing – which makes sense once you consider that those that comment have an investment in a particular story)?

    I think the use of the word “bail” is very appropriate in the conversation above. One typically “bails” on something that’s hard to understand, or hard to do well, or both.

    So yeah, some “news orgs are killing comments, but not just because their commenters are terrible at being humans” (by the way, they’re typically not generic “news org” but newspapers or newspaper spin-offs, which are historically hostile to situations where the conversation can’t be controlled). They’re killing them because they know better than those terrible humans, their readers.

  • Derpy

    It takes time and effort to grow a comment section. It doesn’t just happen on its own. It is like growing a garden. Just because you have empty land in your back yard doesn’t mean tomatoes and squash are going to pop out of the ground in neatly ordered rows. You have to work the land, plant the seeds, give them necessary nutrients, sunlight, and irrigation, pull out weeds, kill pests, et cetera. You have to put forth the time and effort, and it isn’t easy. It isn’t straight forward. There is a learning curve. Some people just aren’t talented enough or have the necessary personality or work ethic. It doesn’t just magically happen by itself.

    If you’re not one of those people who is willing and able to put forth the effort, then maybe you shouldn’t be growing a garden, maybe you should just fill in the place with concrete and pavement or something and spend your time doing something else. But that doesn’t mean the fruits of labor are any less sweet.

  • Ray

    Going away from commenting takes away another engagement tool for your readers, doing so elsewhere (i.e. Twitter or other social media) just doesn’t have the same feel.

    As with any medium, time and energy needs to be put into it to shape it to the way you want it to be, ie. moderation, etc. You can’t just throw up comments on your sites and expect them take care of themselves. Just like with successful message boards, moderators are a must as well as proper registration tools to head off spam, etc. There’s plenty of tools to make it work, some give up too easily at trying to engage with their own readers which can be valuable, esp. on your own site. The garden analogy comment here is perfect.

    Here’s a great article I agree with on the power of commenting:


  • ryanbrown

    This is right on! It’s for this reason that so many publishers have offloaded commenting to third parties and social networks – its just too much real work. It’s quite a shame, gardens can be so much fun.

  • Jamie Mottram

    No two sites are alike, but Joshua’s analysis speaks for FTW.

  • Jimbo Jones

    It is all kyke pressure. Jews do not like to here the truth about themselves.

  • AramZS

    “best to have one single thing that you’re asking your user to do. If that thing is ‘share this on social media,’ a comment box can be a distraction.”

    Unless you let them send their comments to social media platforms when they comment.

  • calhou

    ….or perhaps they are being cut to silence divergent views. We have moved away from objective reporting. Every site has a slant an perspective. They are tryong to mold opinion, not present facts. The comments section makes that a lot harder if there are ideas presented that are not compatible with your own.

  • Tom O’Brien

    Sharing socially is great as it’s an amplifier for sure, but do you really trust Twitter and Facebook with the right dialogue? Consider this, if you share a message across FB/Twitter you are competing with everything…friends, family, pass times, events, news, ads, interruptions etc. Further, one FB session is 20 minutes, one Twitter session is 10 minutes, whereas one single discussion/comment session–uninterrupted is 7 minutes! (Full disclosure– I work at DIsqus). As Calhou suggests, you are inhibiting divergent views. Why not invite the dialogue on your site and allow for healthy and appropriate dialogue? I’d also like to mention that Twitter/FB shares are very reflexive and very easy to do, whereas commenting involves reflection and thought. Something poorly lacking all over the Internet.

  • Andrew Leimdorfer

    “commenters are terrible at being humans”: sometimes true.

    So if that’s the dominant mode of discussion on your publication, it’s going to take significant effort to sort it out and there are other forums that duplicate the function the commenting system serves, if it doesn’t add meaningful engagement, why not bail? . Sounds like a sensible move.

  • Andrew Leimdorfer

    “commenters are terrible at being humans”: sometimes true.

    So if that’s the dominant mode of discussion on your publication, it’s going to take significant effort to sort it out and there are other forums that duplicate the function the commenting system serves, if it doesn’t add meaningful engagement, why not bail? . Sounds like a sensible move.

  • Andrew Leimdorfer

    “commenters are terrible at being humans”: sometimes true.

    So if that’s the dominant mode of discussion on your publication, it’s going to take significant effort to sort it out and there are other forums that duplicate the function the commenting system serves, if it doesn’t add meaningful engagement, why not bail? . Sounds like a sensible move.

  • Eugene Cassidy

    No data from me. Anecdotally, from inside a couple of newsrooms, both sports departments almost to a man hated the comments. Sports outcomes are known before people read about them, setting fans free to disagree with writers. Especially irksome are attacks on the writers. Why attach comments that are a free unsigned ad that your product sucks? Nobody’s going to leap to your defense. It leads to a low opinion of your product, and is a step toward failure of authoritativeness, the website, or the site’s ability to generate revenue when readers turn elsewhere.

  • George Haines

    This comment by Aaron added value to the article. What the article lacked in critical analysis, Aaron provided.
    No matter if a Nigerian prince bot comments later, this blog would be worse off if it locked the comments before posting this.
    Unless the Internet is going to train and hire editors like writers used to have, we desperately need comments.

  • markloundy

    Organizations that eliminate comments don’t understand how they work. Allusions to comment “systems” confirm that ignorance. There is no easy or cheap way to run good engagement. It requires hands-on work by skilled, experienced professionals. It cannot be effectively automated or scaled.

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