Reader Comments on News Sites: We want to know what your post is doing

One of Nieman Lab’s most read stories is “What happened after 7 news sites got rid of reader comments”, published in 2015. In this article, Justin Ellis looked at sites that had taken the decision – still somewhat unusual at the time – to disable comments on their sites.

“We believe social media is the new arena for commenting, replacing the old on-site approach that dates back many years,” Kara Swisher and Walt Mossbergthen Recodehe wrote at the time.

Seven years later, just as Twitter isn’t much of a replacement for a public editor, social media has proven to be pretty much the opposite of a panacea for toxic comment sections. At a recent panel, the editors of metropolitan newspapers across the country discussed their thoughts on reader feedback and their strategies for handling it.

They did not all follow the same path.

“It’s something we’re all struggling with,” the Boston Globe editor said. Brian McGrory, but “people are expected to have their say”. The Globe is in the process of hiring a community engagement editor to strategically tackle commentary sections; for now, the newspaper employs a moderation company that sifts through comments, removes some, and blocks users if necessary. “We have a lot of smart commentators, people who really know what they’re talking about, and we take what they say very seriously,” McGrory said. “That’s mixed with a lot of people who are there to let off steam in a way that doesn’t reflect a larger life.”

The Philadelphia Investigator turn off reader comments on almost all of his stories in February 2021. “It was not an easy call. Engagement and the time people spend on the site is an important numerical metric, and if people are allowed to comment, they’re obviously longer on the site,” said Gabriel Escobar, publisher and vice-president of the Inquirer. But “in the end it was so toxic – toxic in the general nature of the comments, but [also] toxic when it comes to personalized attacks on journalists. Moderation tools “failed to filter out the most despicable comments,” he said. “At the end of the day, we basically cut them, and I don’t think any of us regret that.”

The Seattle Times is disabling comments on ‘stories of a sensitive nature’, said Michelle Matassa Flores, editor of the Seattle Times. “People can’t behave on a story that has to do with race.” Comments are disabled on race, immigration, and crime stories, for example. What works better, Flores said, is incitement — soliciting comments before a story is published and essentially pre-moderating them. This worked well, for example, with a recent set of articles analyzing the Seattle Times’ coverage of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. “We did a prompt, moderated those ahead of time, and then posted the thoughtful responses — which encourages more thoughtful responses, and it sort of feeds that way,” she said.

Similarly, in the case of a package on The Minneapolis Juvenile Justice Systemthe Minneapolis Star Tribune solicited comments and stories from readers in advance, said Suki Dardarian, the editor of the newspaper. “This is a story you want comments on, but you know it’s going to be too difficult to moderate it, so we invited people to share your thoughts, and then we come back to them and find a way to incorporate their thoughts and feelings in our coverage.

We’re looking to do a piece on the present and future of comment sections on news sites, so take this as our invite for your feedback: what is your outlet doing with comments these days?

If you launched it recently, how did you decide whether or not to have a comments section?

If your site has been around longer, did you have to decide whether to keep comments on, turn them off, or something in between? And if so, where did you stay?

Let us know by filling out this form, we may contact you for more information.

Photo of a toy chattering teeth by Wendy used under Creative Commons license.

Jacob L. Thornton