For a short period at the end of 2014, it appeared that publishers had reached a breaking point in their ongoing struggle with reader comments. Within a few weeks of each other, Recode, Mic, The Week, and Reuters all announced that they were closing down their comment sections. They joined the ranks of other outlets, including The Chicago Sun-Times and Popular Science, that abandoned the practice in favor of letting users discuss stories on social channels instead.Many news organizations have had comments sections for as long as they’ve been online. For just as long, many have agonized over the value of the conversations that rage in the space below a story. There’s plenty of debate over the issue, as newsrooms struggle with moderation, the value of anonymity among commenters, and, in some cases, the legal issues that arise from what’s said in the comments.
“If I was painting a picture of a site we were gonna have, and then at the end I said, ‘Oh, by the way, at the bottom of all our articles we’re going to prominently let any pseudonymous avatar do and say whatever they want with no moderation’ — if there was no convention of Internet commenting, if it wasn’t this thing that was accepted, you would think that was a crazy idea,” said Ben Frumin, editor-in-chief of TheWeek.com.Social media has changed the equation for a number of publishers that already use Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr to distribute their stories to new audiences. As Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg wrote on Recode’s decision to end comments: “We believe that social media is the new arena for commenting, replacing the old onsite approach that dates back many years.”
The benefits to social are that people are already on those networks, already holding conversations and sharing stories, Swisher told me. “It’s not clear why comments are a particularly good part of the [website] experience,” she said.
I spoke to seven news organizations — Recode, The Verge, Reuters, Mic, Popular Science, The Week, and USA Today’s FTW — about their decision to suspend comments, the results of that change, and how they manage reader engagement now. All but one of the sites say they won’t be going back; The Verge is selectively using comments on stories and plans to re-introduce them across the site in the near future, according to editor-in-chief Nilay Patel. Transcripts of our conversations, below, are edited slightly for clarity and length.
We didn’t get rid of them, and that makes us a little different from everybody else you might be talking to. We want to have a big community, a vibrant community, and find ways to grow and nurture that community over time. That will ultimately lead to our success, particularly in a world where, I think, everyone is super worried about off-platform publishing.
We’re trying to reset the expectations of our community and rethink how we maintain what’s strong about one set of people that are reading one kind of content as our site grows and as our ambitions grow for the site.The posts that have the most comments on them are not necessarily the most popular posts. But often, what was happening was that the posts with the most negative comments on them were the most popular posts because they were the culture posts. That sort of disconnect between what one vocal minority of the audience was saying, and what the huge majority of the audience was reading, was causing some whiplash.
I don’t know that you can engineer around bad habits of a community. I just don’t think that’s gonna work. I think you actually need to establish norms of behavior that people will follow because they care about the space. We can roll out a million product tools to help us deal with bad actors, but what we actually need to do is build a community that doesn’t allow bad actors to flourish in the first place.
That comes down to, again, the relationship between the people who work at The Verge and the audience who reads it and cares about it. That’s hard. That’s a much harder solution than we’re gonna build in down-rank buttons and shadow bans.
Havlak: As we turned off the comments on the posts, we’ve seen more people go into the forums. Forum traffic has jumped about 36 percent. It’s at its highest point by far this year.
In certain posts, we chose to leave the comment thread on. We chose to have the writer go in and say, OK, this is the question I want to pose to the readers to start a valuable discussion. And that’s [also] what a forum post does: it keeps things on topic, it keeps things positive, and it’s less [just] reaction to a story.
The community that happens on the website is super important. But it’s just one community out of 12 different communities we maintain. Website comments are just one of all of these different places where people are responding to us.
Of course, harassment on Twitter have been a problem, but [in general], people who come on Twitter and have their real names and faces, and are actually tweeting back at the writers, tend to be more civil, more constructive. They want to find our writers where they are.
It’s fortuitous that Facebook’s author tags have been rolling out. We’ve been turning those on and letting people follow a lot of our specific writers.
Dan Colarusso, executive editor of Reuters.com:
We did keep comments on our opinion pieces, because we felt that that is where you are trying to start an argument in the best possible way.
[Commenting] wasn’t a main lever of engagement for us, quite frankly. If it were, we might have taken a different approach to it, as opposed to just removing it wholesale. I don’t remember the exact data around our analysis, but it was a fraction of our traffic or engagement. We didn’t feel as if there was a lot going on there, anyway; it hadn’t become as fertile and diverse as our audience was.
Until four or five months ago, we only had social media for [Reuters.com] out of New York. We hired Jamillah Knowles to be deputy social editor out of London, to keep us starting a conversation earlier around stories and to give us a truly global feel. That’s one part, just expanding how often we’re actually manually active on [social]. We’re pitching stories forward and putting stuff out that’s not on an auto feed. It’s engendering conversation.
The other thing we’ve done — we haven’t done it in hard news yet, but we’ve done it in personal finance here in the States — is Twitter chats with readers and our wealth team. Lauren Young runs them out of New York, and we do one a month right now. We’re thinking of expanding that to news and other issues.
I think the way [engagement] was being done, the game had passed it by. We’re in a unique position to put a fine point on engagement. I consider us to be in the age of engagement right now, in the sense that our social thrust has a very specific plan behind it. Rebuilding our CMS and tweaking our article-level pages is about engagement.
Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode:
For example, our Elizabeth Warren interview got a million views and likes on Facebook. We did a story called Game of Drones that just has gone crazy on Twitter. We just had a series of videos about women techies.
We get a lot of response, opinion, and commentary there, and also great retweets and likes, especially from well-known people who wouldn’t necessarily comment on one of our sites. Melinda Gates went crazy for our women in tech series. When she [tweeted it], that was so much more helpful than if she had just said ‘great job’ on the site or something.
— Melinda Gates (@melindagates) August 19, 2015
We want to have a broad audience, but we also have a very heavy-infuencer audience. We want them to see we’re on these social media platforms. That’s where they engage, so that’s where we engage with them. [Social media] is just a better place to engage a smart audience that’s not trolling. We got a lot of trouble in our comments on different stories — attacks on our writers, just stupid things; it wasn’t smart.
I know that Gawker’s trying to develop a smart comments system. And I think Jessica Lessin is doing a nice job on The Information, because she has subscribers. So that’s a different level of people who pay to subscribe, they’re very different.
We try other things. We do newsletters every day. We do, obviously, the events. They’re a great way to reach out to people. We do a podcast now, which is really helpful. So we try everything, we try to reach out in lots of ways.
We love it, we’re thrilled. We’re very happy. We didn’t have the time and didn’t see the benefit of continuing with the comments. Things have changed; you have to change with them. And a lot of people followed in our footsteps, which is fascinating. At first, everyone was like ‘how dare you,’ and then a lot of people did it. And a lot more will do it over time.
Jamie Mottram, director of content development for USA Today’s Sports Media Group:
First, we try to cover the story, whatever it is, really, really well. Then we try to present that story to the audience via social and messaging platforms in the most engaging way possible. That could be through headlines, featured images, native video on Facebook, Vines — whatever accurately presents the story while increasing engagement.
Since we got rid of commenting on FTW, we’ve added WhatsApp and SMS share features, and our numbers show those are both popular ways for readers to make contact.
We also use SimpleReach, Chartbeat, and CrowdTangle, all of which are analytics tools that show us what’s being said about our content on social platforms and other sites. We can then choose to engage in those conversations where they’re happening, or not.
There wasn’t much feedback [on our decision to remove comments], other than from media people on Twitter expressing their joy about the changes. (Publishing on the Internet can sometimes subject writers to abuse from commenters, you know.)
As for audience behavior: When FTW removed comments in December 2013, it had 8 million monthly unique users. Last month, it had 17 million monthly uniques, and the time spent per visit hasn’t dropped a bit.
Ben Frumin, editor-in-chief of TheWeek.com:
A really big part of it, though, is the idea, as I wrote last year, that I just don’t think [comments are] a core function or service of news and opinion sites anymore.
When we were making this decision last year, we looked a lot at the data. The most comments we ever had in a single month was July of 2014, when we had some 68,000 comments. That sounds like a lot. But we also had 12 million unique visitors that month. When you start to look at it that way, even if every comment was created by an individual commenter — which is not the way it works; surely several of those commenters commented hundreds of times — 68,000 commenters would still be dramatically less than one percent of our total readership.
We’ve seen engagement skyrocket. Now, closing the comments section is not the only thing we’ve done. We’ve redesigned our whole site; there are a number of potentially confounding variables in the statistics. But I do think commenting is a part of it. We’ve seen our pages per visit nearly double since we closed the comments section. We’ve seen our bounce rate nearly cut in half since we closed the comments.
On our site, we’ve seen engagement go up. Off of our site, on some social platforms, we see really robust and thoughtful conversations: On our Facebook page, off of our Facebook page but being sparked by our content, and on Twitter.
[Social media] in its best form leads to really rich conversations. Obviously, in its worst form, it can lead to partisan name-calling by a small number of vitriol-spewing readers.
Slade Sohmer, director of editorial strategy for Mic:
By doing this on these various social channels, the audience we want to reach is engaging in the right conversations for the discussions that we’re starting. People aren’t flying into stories they happen to see in their feed and leaving a comment and jumping out and starting chaos.
I’m pretty biased, but I think we have one of the better programming and social teams in the business. We carefully select the stories that go up on Facebook. We don’t do much question-asking, but we do pay quite a bit of attention to the share text around every story that we publish.
It’s the same on Tumblr and Twitter. Everything that we put out there in the world, we take very seriously. We don’t just leave it alone from there; the programming team then moderates that conversation.
I think you’ll probably get this answer uniformly across the Internet, but Facebook is the key driver in terms of traffic and engagement. Within seconds of us posting something on Facebook, the conversation is off and running. We are also very, very proud of what we built on Tumblr. I know everyone’s kind of biased, but we have the best Tumblr team in all of media.
We drive a million plus uniques a month from Tumblr, which is unparalleled. More than that, almost every story we post, the number of notes and the number of reblogs and comments back to us is just absolutely amazing.
As we’ve seen, the media has to go where its audience is. And for us, we really don’t consider it an over-reliance [on outside platforms]. We are just happy to have an audience wherever we have it.
Carl Franzen, online director for Popular Science:
Online, which is where I primarily work, we’ve also seen a number of trends spring up on social media, which we’ve then reported on as stories for PopSci. This summer’s Christopher Pratt/zookeeper meme inspired by Jurassic World and the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag are just two examples of stories that came out of our close observation of and participation in social media.
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We use social media and email newsletters, and we’ll soon be introducing more live events to get readers and audience members involved in sci-tech topics of interest to them and us.
Our editors engage with readers on social media on a regular basis, particular Facebook and Instagram, the latter of which we’ve recently been using to ask for input on our content and for submissions as part of science imagery–focused contests.
PopSci is lucky in that our community of readers and followers is very curious, positive, and interested in learning more about all sorts of subjects. Many of our readers already use social media to read and share science news, so moving more of our engagement to where they are now just makes perfect sense.