Hosting a website comment section is no longer an unquestioned staple of news sites. Following the lead of Mic, Reuters, and Bloomberg, NPR removed comment threads from its website last Tuesday, meaning readers will no longer be able to add their input at the bottom of a story page.
Many praised the decision, seeing no use for the section. Chris Cilliza of The Washington Post described the comments on his blog, The Fix, as “a town in which the loudest and most obnoxious guy appoints himself mayor,” and praised NPR for helping “make online conversation great — or maybe just less worse — again.”
Others, especially NPR’s regular commentators, weren’t pleased. “This is the only place I’ve found where it is (was) possible to have an intelligent, fun conversation about politics, science, history or philosophy, where a professor of said subject is at your virtual elbow to recommend further reading or correct bad grammar,” wrote one frequent commenter in response to NPR’s announcement.
What would happen if your news organization removed commenting ability from its website? We outlined some of the pros and cons of such a move.
Comment sections are infamously negative and prone to irrelevance. Removing them removes those concerns and creates a more positive website experience for the reader.
Comment sections have become so ingrained in the news website experience that their removal will at first seem almost an affront to free speech. To recover from the outcry, your organization will need to communicate its reasons and its plan for future audience engagement.
Social media and/or forum engagement will jump when engagement is directed away from the site. According to Engagement Editor Helen Havlak, forum participation at The Verge jumped 36 percent when they removed commenting ability from their website. Additionally, increased social media traffic will boost name recognition, likes and shares.
Moving engagement to platforms like Twitter and Facebook takes the moderation and control over the software and data out of the hands of the news organization and eliminates what Andrew Losowsky of The Coral Project terms “engagement funnels,” which “get people more dedicated to your product.”
News organizations can more easily protect their brand and their message from being overshadowed by “loud” commenters. NPR found that only .06 percent of their readers were regular commenters, meaning only a small fraction were controlling the tone of responses to NPR’s reporting.
Without comments to peruse or threads to join, readers spend less time on the website, which decreases online advertising revenue.
The work of moderating the website comments disappears: no more grappling with anonymity concerns, legal issues, or website commenting policies.
It’s not as easy as web editing the comment thread feature away. Like NPR, your organization will need to quickly direct audience engagement elsewhere and join the ongoing conversation about how to improve the audience engagement experience.
Unfortunately, the perfect alternative to comment sections hasn’t been found yet. But there’s some exciting research and conversation around the subject happening right now. NPR is experimenting with Hearken, the self-proclaimed “next level” of audience engagement that builds tools for readers and reporters to collaborate on stories. Andrew Losowsky and his team at The Coral Project are currently researching ways to build effective online communities with open-source software. There’s much to experiment with, explore and discuss; NPR’s decision is only a shadow of the future of online communities.