While others shut down comments, the NYT says it wants to expand them

by Mathew on February 25, 2015

If there was a ranking of popularity for online behavior, internet comments would probably wind up somewhere just below pop-up ads or auto-play videos. Seen by many as a haven for trolls and spam, a number of sites — including Popular Science and Bloomberg — have gotten rid of them. But there are still those who believe allowing readers to comment is a worthwhile endeavor, and the New York Times appears to belong to this group: instead of getting rid of them, the paper says it plans to expand comments and invest more resources in them.

Community editor Bassy Etim told public editor Margaret Sullivan that in contrast to some other organizations, the Times sees the readers who leave comments on its site as a “celebrity class” of users, and wants to give them more features and recognize their contributions. How exactly it plans to do that isn’t clear, but Etim also said that the number of Times stories that are open to comments will also increase — from an average of about 20 each day to more than twice that (opinion columns are almost always open to comments).

Unlike many of the other organizations that have chosen to kill off their comments — including Re/code, Reuters and The Week — the New York Times apparently doesn’t believe that social-media networks such as Twitter and Facebook can take the place of reader interaction directly on the Times site. As I’ve tried to argue before, the fact that those tools exist should be seen as an addition to traditional commenting, not a replacement for it. In addition to the Times, sites like Quartz, Medium and Gawker have been experimenting with ways of improving comments rather than killing them.

Those are real readers

One common argument made by sites that have chosen to kill their comments is that the people who post comments aren’t a publication’s “real” readers, and/or make up such a small proportion of the readership that they don’t really matter. Bloomberg’s online editor Joshua Topolsky, for example, said that the site would not have comments after a redesign because the number of people who would be served by them was so minuscule:

“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.”

This kind of comment ignores a number of things, however: One is that an active community of readers should never be ignored, even if some of them behave badly from time to time (and in fact that kind of behavior only increases if you ignore them). And the second is that even if the number of people who comment is low, the number of readers who pay attention to comments is arguably a lot higher — given the traditional social-media rule of thumb that says 90 percent of people read or lurk, with only one percent taking action.

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New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, who spent part of her column discussing the problems that readers have with the NYT’s comments — including having comments not show up, or not being able to post them because a story has already been closed to new comments — said she believes that comments are a key part of the newspaper’s relationship with its readers. While the Times system is not perfect, she said, “reader commenting is one of the best ways for The Times to stay close to its readers and what they care most about.”

Comments have value

The NYT isn’t the only major publication that believes comments have value: Aron Pilhofer, the head of digital for The Guardian in London — and the former head of the digital team at the New York Times — said at the recent News:Rewired conference that he believes media organizations who choose to shut down their comments are making a huge mistake:

“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.”

The audience-development team at the Times is said to be working on a number of potential enhancements to the commenting function at the paper, changes that are expected to build on some earlier features and experiments with added functionality — such as the introduction of “verified commenter” status. Verified commenters are selected by the Times based on their previous behavior and can post comments without having them be moderated before they appear (the paper has a moderation team of about 13 people).

As I argued at the time, the verified-commenter feature could have been the first step in getting some devoted Times readers to “level up” or become more involved in a community of readers at the paper, a relationship that could then be monetized in a number of ways. The Times is also a partner — along with a number of other media organizations such as the Washington Post — in a project being run by the Mozilla Foundation, called The Coral Project, which is building an open-source platform for reader interaction, including comments.

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