Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Holding algorithms (and the people behind them) accountable is still tricky, but doable
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Feb. 2, 2018, 11:47 a.m.
Audience & Social

The Atlantic is killing its comments in favor of a new Letters section to showcase reader feedback

“Design-wise, comments are treated as an afterthought. We wanted to find a way to elevate the best ideas from our readers.” pulled the plug on comments on Friday, but it’s replacing them with something that it hopes will be a major improvement for both its commenters and non-commenting readers.

Modeled after how it manages The Conversation section of the print magazine, The Atlantic will regularly publish reader feedback on in its new Letters section. A team of staffers on the print and digital sides will read the letters, choosing the ones with the most interesting and challenging ideas. Many will be published individually and will get the same design and editorial as regular articles, with illustrations and placement on the site’s homepage and social channels.

Adrienne LaFrance, editor of, said that the move is designed to elevate the smartest feedback from its readers, both by incentivizing more thought-out responses over knee-jerk reactions and by making it easier for others to read them (which in turn improves the overall experience of reading “We have such smart readers and they add so much to our journalism, whether they’re praising us, criticizing us, or just adding a new perceptive. It’s all very valuable,” she said. “It’s a huge leap up from the comment section.”

At the same time, LaFrance didn’t deny the reality that the typical comments section is a generally unpleasant thing to experience, both for readers and reporters. Many news organizations have reached the same conclusion over the past few years, opting to shut down their comments sections rather than attempt to tame them. (NPR, which did so in mid-2016, is one of the most prominent recent examples.)

Not all have given up hope, however. The New York Times, for example, said last year that it would open up 80 percent of its articles to comments, up from 10 percent, thanks to an Alphabet-designed tool called Perspective. Norway’s NRKbeta makes readers pass a little quiz before they are able to comment on stories (though it isn’t clear whether the effort has been successful ).

Some think the most successful way to improve comments sections is moderate them and encourage reporters to take an active role in the discussions of their stories. A 2017 survey produced by the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas and The Coral Project, found that most of the commenters polled said they would like if reporters were actively involved in discussions.

LaFrance said that while there are a lot of interesting and valuable experiments going on with comments right now, few are viable routes for The Atlantic. “I worked at a local newsroom once where a big part of the job was to engage in the comments, which as a concept I really like, but even there in a tiny newsroom it was just not possible. We were out trying to break news,” she said. “You just don’t have time as a reporter to be moderating comments.”

LaFrance said that much of The Atlantic’s new initiative is still experimental and the site plans to tweak certain factors over time, such as how often reader letters are published. “This is the Internet, so we can publish as much as we want.”

POSTED     Feb. 2, 2018, 11:47 a.m.
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