Analysis - by on Friday, July 25, 2008 11:20 - 26 Comments

Comments add value to newspaper Web sites

Sorry Gawker, but you’re dead wrong that newspapers should stop allowing people to comment on stories.

Really, really wrong.

Comments add value to Web sites, they drive traffic and build communities. The problem with most newspaper Web sites is that they are comment ghettos — sections of Web sites that are left uncultivated and unloved by newspaper staffs. In fact, many newspaper forbid employees from interacting with readers in the comments section of stories and posts.

That’s the real problem.

Of course there isn’t a shred of evidence or proof in the Gawker post about why newspapers should stop allowing comments.  All Gawker can offer up (and I’m fairly convinced their post was simply link bait, which many of us took) is that comments can be acidic or inappropriate.

Well, duh. That’s because people can be acidic and inappropriate. The only reason I’m responding to this post is because many people within the journalism sphere — especially people who aren’t fond of many Web tools — are going to use the Gawker post to justify not allowing people to comment.

If a news organization is not willing to cultivate comments and build a community, then, yes, comments may not be a great idea. But that’s the real problem. Newspapers should care about building a community.

Several beat bloggers that we track have exceptional comments sections on their blogs. Why? Because they actively engage users and write back to them.

They care about what their users have to say, and their users know it. How many newspapers can honestly say that?

When the SciGuy Eric Berger started blogging he tried to respond to as many comments as possible on his blog. He finds that people are much less willing to write inappropriate things on his blog if they realize that someone — especially the original author — is reading what they are writing and judging them on it.

Berger even — gasp — moderates every comment on his blog. He owns his comments. He cultivates his community.

"It does take time to moderate, but it makes for a much better community," Berger said.

Kent Fischer, a beat blogger covering education for The Dallas Morning News, routinely gets illuminating and thought provoking comments from his users. In fact, some comments have spurred him to write posts and cover topics that he wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

If Fischer’s comments didn’t add value to his blog, do you think he would have a feature called "Comment of the Week?" If all Fischer got were acidic and inappropriate comments, do you think he would be inviting guest bloggers? Here is what Fischer had to say about why he decided to allow guest blogging:

Over the last several months, both Pat and Ray have distinguished
themselves in this blog’s comments section. We found their writings so
sharp and illuminating that we thought they deserved a bigger audience.
So, we asked them to guest blog. And darned if they didn’t say yes.

When news organizations and journalists actively engage users, they’ll get some really good comments. Sometimes those comments are so good they need to be hoisted up for all to see.

Gawker argues that its OK for newspaper blogs to have comments, but not stories, because blogs are for opinions and stories are for facts. Blogs, like Web sites, like newspapers, like magazines are just a publishing platform. All of those platforms can be avenues for original reporting and comments from the community.

The beat bloggers we deal with — unlike Gawker — are real reporters. They break news. But they have used their blgos do so much more than just break news — they have built communities and social networks.

Newspapers need to lift their bans on reporters commenting on stories. Some don’t even allow bloggers to comment on their own blogs without prior approval from editors. I even spoke to one online reporter who is not allowed to moderate the comments on her blog.

These are terrible, community killing policies. Each reporter should take responsibility for the comments on his or her stories and posts. Reporters should be encouraged to actively participate in the comments sections of their stories. In fact, rather than punishing reporters for commenting, they should be punished for not commenting.

Maybe this means writing less stories and spending more time on community building. The Web is about building communities, and if the only thing newspaper reporters can do right now is throw a bunch of stories up on a Web site, newspapers will have a tough time building communities.

Those communities can drive traffic and make money for newspapers. Every Web site will have a limit to how many unique visitors it can attract, but there is no real limit to the amount of page views that can be had by building features and communities that make people want to come back over and over again. Most people click through, read a story, and leave a newspaper site, because there is no real reason to stick around.

Let’s give people a reason to stick around newspaper Web sites. Maybe it makes more sense for every reporter to have a beat blog dedicated to just their beat, instead of the current model that most newspapers have for news online (not the same as online news).

But whatever newspapers and journalists do, they need to start taking ownership of their comments sections and of their fledgling communities.


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About BeatBlogging.org

BeatBlogging.org was a grant-funded journalism project that studied how journalists used social media and other Web tools to improve beat reporting. It ran for about two years, ending in the fall of 2009.

New content is occasionally produced here by the this project's former editor Patrick Thornton. The site is still up and will remain so because many journalists and professors still use and link to the content. BeatBlogging.org offers a fascinating glimpse into the former stages of journalism and social media. Today it's expected that journalists and journalism organization use social media, but just a few years ago that wasn't the case.

About the Author of this post
Patrick Thornton is the editor and lead writer of BeatBlogging.Org. He is @pwthornton on Twitter.