What’s the value of comments on news?

Reuters has decided to drop reader comments on its news stories. In an editor’s note, Dan Colarusso, the executive editor of Reuters Digital, said this was because “much of the well informed and articulate discussion about news, as well as criticism or praise for stories, has moved to social media and online platforms.”

The agency will continue to host comments on its opinion and blogs sections “so columnists and readers can exchange ideas on interesting and controversial topics” and run a Facebook page, Twitter handle, and report functions.

It’s an interesting decision because, for about a decade, comments have been seen as a key feature of news sites; a way for readers to get more involved with their publication, to pass on informed views and opinion, and to form a ‘community’ with other readers.

Enthusiasts for this kind of interaction have, understandably, condemned the Reuters action, arguing that it will undermine reader confidence in the publication (“make it less transparent”), show its readers that it doesn’t want a ‘relationship’ with them, and hand over the community to Facebook and Twitter.

However, I’m with Reuters. Even Matthew Ingram at Gigamon, in an article entitled ‘ending reader comments is a mistake’ admitted that “comment sections are often filled with trolls, flame wars, and spam.” Indeed they are, and it’s getting worse.

Just look at the Guardian, which made a lot of the early running with comments, and which spends a fortune on moderation. Almost all its comment threads now start with someone arguing that the article is cr*p, and go downhill from there.

What is the value of this to the paper/site? I’d say the vitriol directed towards Guardian journalists actually undermines their credibility as professional news gatherers, writing researched, informed news of value.

The superficial, insulting nature of many comments means ‘below the line’ cannot function like a traditional letters’ page; as a space in which readers can add facts and comments in line with a publication’s own editorial values and ethos.

Indeed, for an increasing number of readers, ‘below the line’ is now just a downright unpleasant place to be (which may be one reason that curated letters pages not only continue to run, but generate their own response threads and in-jokes).

Colarusso doesn’t say so, but he may have made this calculation for Reuters; that it’s actually better off without these distractions on its news output; especially as it will no longer need to carry the cost of moderation on the items of content most likely to open it up to libel actions.

As for gifting “well informed and articulate discussion” to Facebook and Twitter; well, given the nature of much of that discussion, the social media platforms are probably welcome to it.

But another way of looking at the issue is to see putting a post on Facebook or a tweet on Twitter as the equivalent of gossiping with a friend on the way to work or posting a cutting to a relative in times gone by.

Editors certainly want a publication to be talked about because they want people to know about it, in the hope that they’ll become readers (or even better advertisers or consumers of money-making supplements, events and other activities).

But does that mean they need to ‘own’ the platform on which that talking takes place? Nobody argued that papers should ‘own’ bus stops, scissors, paper or envelopes. Nobody argued that not getting into the transport or cuttings business was gifting their community to the local traction company or Royal Mail.

Reuters has clearly decided that there is a value in promoting reader interaction with its columnists and bloggers. This seems sensible, at least for the moment, as it will help create profile for its writers, and pull readers interested in them onto its site.

It should be able to do this at a much lower cost in terms of moderation, given that the libel risk on comment is lower than it is on news, and writers and responders can get involved themselves.

Certainly, the best comment threads on the Guardian now seem to be those on pieces by writers with a definite following; if only because regular readers either know what they’re getting into, or are prepared to police off idiots wanting to spoil ‘their’ space.

However, I’d expect other publications to start thinking like Reuters, and to start making some hard-headed decisions about when it’s reputationally and commercially worth running comment and reader interaction platforms and when it isn’t.

Even in the B2B sector, where I work, there is a definite trend for comments becoming nastier. A noticeably smaller tranche of readers comments on the health and tech sites that I follow, and those that are still active are more likely to rubbish content and each other than was the case even a few months ago.

It’s rare to see an informed discussion of a policy or technical document, even where a link is provided, or a substantial post on a point that other readers can answer. The exceptions tend to be on super-specialist issues that really bring out the experts.

B2Bs may be able to tap into that by running events, forums and networks. After all, if readers really value the input and support of other readers, it ought to be possible to commercialise that, through ads, sponsorship, or fees.

Comments added pull, interest and value to news stories in the early days of the digital publishing revolution. But it’s now up for debate whether they continue to do that.

Reuters has decided it’s no longer worth the reputational and commercial candle to keep running comments on news; while looking for other forms of reach and engagement with its clients. Other organisations will surely do the same.

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