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

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.

2583886589_01ce541f8a_z

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.

Come On Nick, You Can Do Better Than That

Choire Sicha, former editor of Gawker and now co-founder of The Awl, points out that the Gawker offices have a large screen mounted on the wall that shows the top most-read stories on the site in terms of unique visitors, allegedly to motivate writers at the blog network (although it’s interesting to note that this screen is described as being in the reception area rather than where the writers can see it). Gawker also posts its top-read stories in terms of both pageviews and unique visitors, which is an interesting page to watch.

That said, however, pageviews and even unique visitors are only a couple of the factors that media entities need to be concerned about — as I tried to argue in this post (check the bottom for recent updates), based on the Twitter debate between Reuters writer Felix Salmon and Business Insider founder Henry Blodget — and neither one of them is arguably the most important. Yes, they are the metrics with the largest numbers, and so they impress some advertisers and possibly some competitors. But they are also subject to inflation by girls kissing and slideshows, as Felix noted in the tweet that started his battle with Blodget.

Denton says he agrees that pageviews and uniques aren’t the best measures, and asks for others that are better. Okay, Nick — what about time spent with a story? Why not put that up on a big-screen TV on the wall? What about the number of repeat visitors that a writer gets over a month? Or what about the number of comments on a story, multiplied by the number of times a writer actually responds? Gawker is one of the most forward-thinking sites on the Web when it comes to comments and how they are managed, and from what I have seen their writers — particularly Denton himself — are good about responding. That’s a far better metric of value in my books.

Soon, advertisers will realize that chasing after raw pageviews and
big unique visitor numbers is a mug’s game, and one that Demand Media
and Associated Content and similar content factories will win every
time
— and arguably many advertisers are already realizing this,
which is why CPMs generally suck. So what starts to matter more?
Engagement. Admittedly, it’s difficult to measure (let alone define),
but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.

Update: In a tweet to me, Nick says that comments are “a horribly misleading measure, e.g. commenter delight at a blog squabble is inversely related to wider appeal.”

Mahendra Palsule also has a thoughtful post about the move from number-based metrics such as pageviews and CPMs to relevance-based measurement and tools.

Anonymous Comments: Are They Good or Evil?

Updated: I enjoy a good debate about media-related topics pretty much any time, even when I’m supposed to be on vacation with the family in Florida. Today, in between playing shuffleboard and bocce and taking the kids to the swimming pool, I had a rousing back-and-forth on Twitter with Howard Owens — who was formerly with Gatehouse Media and is now running a local news site called The Batavian — about the evils (Howard) and virtues (me) of anonymous comments. Along the way, we sucked Steve Yelvington and others into the fray as well. Did we settle the issue? Not even close. In fact, I’m not sure it can ever be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

In a nutshell, Howard said that anonymous comments were an abomination (I’m paraphrasing somewhat) and were in fact unethical, since commenters on a news site had a “fundamental right” to know the identity of the other people commenting. I tried to make a number of points, including the fact that anonymity is a red herring, and that the more important thing in encouraging a strong and healthy community conversation is standards of behaviour, regardless of anonymity. I also tried to make the point that anonymity has its benefits, and that many people — some of whom might have valuable contributions to make — would never comment if they had to use real names (Howard made the point that allowing anonymity excludes other people).

Howard noted that his beliefs about anonymous comments come from “a vast body” of real-world experience, not just theories and supposition. While I may not have a vast body of experience, I spent several years dealing with comments at the Globe and Mail, where we routinely got 7,000 or more comments every day — and for the past year or so I was in charge of moderating those comments, so anonymity is something I not only have seen the downside of, but feel pretty strongly about (hence the debate). And I surveyed our readers about it extensively, so I know how many of them feel as well — in fact, I wrote a whole blog post about exactly that topic in 2008.

After I took the job as online Communities Editor, the first thing people said to me was “You have to fix the comments — they’re terrible.” And the second thing they said was: “We should make people use their real names. That would solve everything.” The first of those observations was arguably true, since the Globe and Mail comments were in many cases terrible. But the second observation was not even close to being true, or at least I didn’t think so. For one thing, I knew that there were some online communities that allowed anonymous comments and yet had pretty healthy comment boards, including Metafilter (one of my favourites) and Slashdot. (I’m not the only one to defend anonymous comments — a former executive editor of WashingtonPost.com did so as well, despite his earlier dislike of them).

The other thing I knew was that it is virtually impossible to actually verify someone’s identity online, unless you ask them for their social insurance (or social security) number, or their credit-card number. And while I have no empirical evidence to prove it, I have a pretty strong feeling that this would dramatically reduce the number of people who would be willing to comment (as would charging for the right to comment, which someone on Twitter suggested as a solution). And I believe that one of the principles of running a media site is that you should open up interaction to as many people as possible. Not that you don’t moderate offensive comments — far from it. In fact, I think moderation and engagement (as Steve Yelvington notes in this post) can make up for a lot of what Howard sees as the downsides of anonymity (a point Jim Lippard also made).

When I’m asked about comments, I often say that to me, comments and the ability to interact through them are like democracy. Most people support democracy and its various principles, even though in practice it is frequently ugly and brutal and betrays some of the worst elements of humanity for everyone to see (Winston Churchill said that democracy was the worst possible form of government, except for all the others). So it is with comments. And just as anonymity has a broader purpose in a democratic society — whistleblowing, for example (a point Topix CEO Chris Tolles made), and keeping a check on arbitrary authority — I think it has a purpose in comments and online communities as well.

As I mentioned during our debate, I think that persistent (and quasi-verified) identity agents like Facebook Connect and OpenID can help with some of the problems that online comments have — not necessarily “real” identity so much as persistent identity. It’s not really important that I know who Shelley456 is when she comments, but if she is Shelley456 everywhere she comments, then she has devoted some time (theoretically) to establishing that identity, and therefore will be less likely to destroy it by spewing Nazi hate in some online comment board. Sites that take advantage of persistent identity can become a little like World of Warcraft, allowing people to “level up” through good behaviour, relying on the fact that they won’t behave badly because they have devoted so much time to their virtual identities.

In any case, as I noted on Twitter, I didn’t pick on Howard because I wanted to start a fight over comments — I got into the debate because I think it’s an important issue and because it needs to be thought about and talked about if we are to get it right (and I’m willing to admit that what is right for Howard on his community news site is not what might be right for another news site or entity). Thanks to everyone who took part.

Update: John Bracken of the MacArthur Foundation wrote a post about this discussion, and so did Steve Buttry — who is director of community engagement for the new hyper-local Washington news site that Jim Brady is setting up for Allbritton Communications, and therefore is pretty interested in different approaches to reader comments. Steve’s post is here.

John Temple also said he is interested in the discussion — John is the former editor of the Rocky Mountain News and is now with Pierre Omidyar’s new Peer News startup, and his recent comments about comments started me thinking again about anonymity and how it is a red herring in online community. As Chris Garrett noted in the context of another discussion about online community, “pseudonym does not mean fake.” Jack Lail also has a post with a collection of links he has been putting together about online news site comments.

Comment behaviour: How far is too far?

Updated:

Kurt Greenbaum has apologized for overreacting in his original response to this incident, although he doesn’t explicitly say that he is sorry for calling the school and indirectly causing someone to lose their job.

As someone whose job involves thinking about our social-media policies and our approach to comment behaviour, I’m always looking at what other newspapers and media outlets are doing, and today I came across a case that crossed a line — for me, at least — in terms of how to deal with problem commenters. It involved a vulgar comment made by a user at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s website, and the response by the site’s director of social media, Kurt Greenbaum.

According to Greenbaum’s blog post (which was mirrored on his personal blog), someone posted a comment on a story in which they used a colloquial or slang term for female genitalia. It was deleted, but then was reposted. Greenbaum says he noticed that the comment alert from WordPress showed that it came from a nearby school. So Greenbaum called the school, and they asked him to send them the email with the comment, which he apparently did. About six hours later, he says, the school called and said that an employee had been confronted and that he had resigned.

Am I the only one who thinks that doing this goes way beyond the normal course of editorial behaviour? Continue reading

Newspapers get the comments they deserve

Since I became the first “communities editor” for The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto almost a year ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes for a good community – a healthy community – and what makes for a bad one. I’ve looked at every newspaper I can think of and tried to figure out what works and what doesn’t. I’ve looked at non-media communities like Metafilter and Slashdot and even (so help me) 4chan. I’ve looked at research into real-world communities and how they evolve, and why some thrive and some die out.

There are all sorts of manifestations of community on news sites – blogs, wikis, etc. – but one of the most fundamental elements of community is reader comments. Some media outlets only allow comments on certain stories; some pre-moderate, while others wait for readers to flag unpleasant comments and then remove them. Some sites do the moderating themselves; others outsource to companies like ICUC in Winnipeg. But everyone sees the value of comments, right? Wrong.

The reality is that – as Alfred Hermida of the University of British Columbia journalism school writes at MediaShift – many newspapers still see comments as some kind of necessary evil: a bone tossed to readers to help drive traffic, but something that produces little else of value. Hermida writes about research presented at the recent Future of Journalism conference in Wales (where he presented his “Twitter as ambient journalism” paper) that said most journalists see comments as containing very little news, and mainly view them as a nuisance.

(please read the rest of this post at the Neiman Journalism Lab)