Newspapers have long touted how responsive they are to readers. They want to hear from readers. They care what readers think. They try to give readers what they want. How then to interpret these debates over what to do with reader comments on news stories?
News organizations realize that they have to become more interactive because their readers expect it. The internet is founded on principles of interactivity, and websites that have a high degree of interaction build loyal communities of the kind newspapers have traditionally coveted.
So somewhat late in the game, some newspapers have begun allowing readers to weigh in on stories they produce. Except. The comments predictably plunge to the lowest common denominator. In some recent cases, comments are cruel, racist, and misogynist, not to mention just plain stupid. Why is it that these comments are so wretched? Why would anyone intelligent even bother to read reader comments on news stories? And, given the poor quality, why even have them?
One conclusion could be that the comments really do reflect the intelligence and attitudes of the general population (or at least the readers of news sites). Another possibility is that the low quality of comments is due to a small number of readers who inevitably seem to hijack comments boards. Neither conclusion really works.
I would argue a third. And that is: for all their talk, newspapers are hypocritical when it comes to wanting to listen to readers. In the arts, there’s a saying (only partially true, to be sure, but nonetheless) that goes: you get the audience you deserve. Newspapers say that listening to their readers is a high priority. But by the way newspapers set up reader comments, they show they don’t value reader input at all.
Newspapers say they can’t monitor every comment that comes in because it would be too labor intensive. With no hand on the spiggot, every comment spews onto the screen, no matter how irrelevant or mean. Do newspapers feel that way about traditional letters to the editor? Of course not. A good letters editor tries to build a balance of the best reader letters to reflect various points of view. A good letters page can be a sharp and lively debate. A good letters page is highly valued by readers.
Online reader comments should hold to no lesser standard. But the comments need to be curated. Not censored. There ought to be a price of admission to the comments section, and that is: have something interesting to contribute. If you can contribute something interesting, you’re in. Otherwise… This is the classic editor’s job – pick the good stuff and separate out the nonsense.
A good comments section can be insightful and illuminating. It can add dimension to a story and points of view otherwise not heard. Instead, what we have in the comments on most news sites is Lowest Common Denominator (LCD) sludge. And few smart people are going to waste their time reading them, let alone contribute.
But monitoring comments takes resources we don’t have, newspapers argue. This is an argument, I think, that shows just how profoundly most news organizations don’t understand the internet, both from a content standpoint as well as a business one.
1. The interactive audience is much more loyal than the passive one.
2. Reader comments, managed well, are important content that helps define a publication’s personality and puts it in conversation with its audience.
3. Everything on a website sets the tone of a publication – stupid comments suggest this is a stupid place, smart comments attract other smart, engaged readers.
4. Paying lip service to being interactive is worse than ignoring your audience altogether.
Why wouldn’t a publication take as much care with its interactions with readers as it does in the stories it publishes? Especially if the claims of wanting to “serve” readers is true. Inviting readers onto a website is a good thing, but everyone on the site is a guest, and any good host has ground rules. Will filtering out inappropriate comments lose a site some of its readers? Perhaps. But choose. Not having comments, or having stupidly-handled comments already loses certain readers (and, I would argue, more valuable readers).
Traditional news organizations had enormous advantages coming in to the internet age, many of which they have squandered. But jumping into technologies without understanding how they work or using them without an eye to what you want them to be able to accomplish is almost always a bad thing.