Shutting down comments is a big mistake, Guardian digital editor says

by Mathew on February 3, 2015

No one seems to like web comments any more, at least not in the traditional media anyway. Websites like Reuters and Re/code and Popular Science and Bloomberg have gotten rid of them, and plenty of media insiders have been cheering this movement on, since they see comment sections as cesspools full of trolls. So it’s nice to hear someone like Guardian digital editor Aron Pilhofer say killing off comments is a “monumental mistake.”

In a talk at the News:Rewired conference in London, Pilhofer — who used to run the digital team at the New York Times, before joining the Guardian last year — said that many traditional newsrooms are failing to take full advantage of the web’s ability to create a two-way relationship with readers, and that this is a crucial element of what journalism has become in a digital age. As he put it:

“I feel very strongly that digital journalism needs to be a conversation with readers. This is one, if not the most important area of emphasis that traditional newsrooms are actually ignoring. You see site after site killing comments and moving away from community – that’s a monumental mistake…. readers need and deserve a voice. They should be a core part of your journalism.”

Truly open journalism

Pilhofer talked about how the Guardian looks at its audience, which is as a partner in its journalism, through projects like Guardian Witness — a site where readers can suggest story ideas and also become involved in the reporting of them — which emerged from its repeated experiments in “crowdsourcing.” For the British paper, the concept of “open journalism” as a dialogue between reporters and readers has been a central part of its mandate under outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger.

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The fact that I agree whole-heartedly with Pilhofer probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been reading me over the past few years: I’ve argued repeatedly that real and ongoing engagement with readers — which involves more than just a passive “Here’s our content, please click on it” kind of relationship — is a crucial part of what journalism is now, in part because this trusted relationship with readers is the only real asset that media companies have left to monetize.

Projects like Guardian Witness are the kinds of things that all media companies should be doing more of, Pilhofer said, because reader engagement is “a huge resource we are largely ignoring” as an industry. That’s the bottom line: not so much whether a newspaper or news site has comments or not, but whether it is trying to reach out to its readers in any real way and make them part of its journalism. Or are they just a click factory?

All readers matter

Whenever I try to make this point, someone inevitably says that of course they want to have a relationship with their readers, but comments aren’t the way to do it, because they are just a cesspool of bad behavior — and/or because the people who post in the comments aren’t their real readers, as Bloomberg editor Joshua Topolsky argued in an interview about the site’s redesign and why it has no comments:

“You’re really talking about less than one percent of the overall audience that’s engaged in commenting, even if it looks like a very active community. In the grand scheme of the audience, it doesn’t represent the readership.”

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This is a classic response to comments: “Those people aren’t our real readers, so we can afford to ignore them, and pay attention only to the people who choose to be on the social networks that we frequent, like Twitter and Facebook.” But what about the people who don’t want to have their comments tied to their identity on Facebook — or the readers who choose not to belong to those social networks at all? They in effect become second-class citizens, whose opinions or input aren’t wanted or valued.

Comments can have value

On top of that problem, the readers who are on those networks still have to seek out the commentary on the stories they are interested in discussing. Tools exist to pull responses from Twitter and Facebook back into a comment section on a news site, but few publishers use them. It seems that most would rather outsource their commenting — and by extension, their relationship with their readers — to these third-party networks.

But comments are unfixable, right? Or at least, without spending huge amounts of time and resources on them. That’s the most common response when anyone proposes that they not be killed off. But some sites have shown that it is possible to improve them without an enormous resource commitment: Digiday wrote recently about how comments at Salon improved dramatically once someone started to pay attention to them, and took a few obvious steps to try and encourage good behavior.

Comments aren’t the ultimate expression of community or a relationship with readers by any means. Social networks are also very powerful tools in different ways. But if you can’t figure out how to engage with your readers and build a community of some kind on your own website — around your own content, on your own platform — how can you expect any of your readers to take your commitment to that relationship seriously?

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