NPR closes comments


#1

The announcement: http://www.npr.org/sections/thisisnpr/2016/08/17/490208179/beyond-comments-finding-better-ways-to-connect-with-you

The response from their ombudsman: http://www.npr.org/sections/ombudsman/2016/08/17/489516952/npr-website-to-get-rid-of-comments

Our feeling is the same as with other announcements: it’s always sad when an org closes its comments, but if they don’t see the value, aren’t able/willing to invest in making the space safe, don’t have buy in from the newsroom, and are suffering from abuse, better to close the comments than leave them open on principle, thereby let the garbage fire burn on.

The low number of regular users described in their announcement is particularly telling. It suggests they didn’t manage to get it right using comments on their site.

We’re encouraged by what they say about finding other avenues of engagement. Comments aren’t the only method to engage with readers. But we firmly believe that comments can be terrific and valuable, when applied well, with the right tools and strategy. And by moving the conversation to social alone, a newsroom loses a great deal of potential value, control, and possibility.

What do you think?


#2

that is the core problem: loss of control over the avenues of communication. IMHO their assertion that comments were underutilized seems more an indicator of how well the site has engaged with users and built community (or not) than it is an indicator of the value of a written feedback channel directly visually connected with the presentation of a story on the site.

just me $0.02 worth

jeffs


#3

THIS . I agree with this heartily . So many places have robust comment systems that have people on them so it troubles me when people assume non use is non efficacy. People are attracted to and want to optimize feedback and connection. If they don’t get it they look else where . Users chose yes, but after platforms chose for them


#4

A senior figure in public media said to me today that they were shocked that NPR was essentially abandoning the 2,600 superfans who left comments. Even if half were trolls (probably too high), that’s 1,300 people who are so passionate about NPR and sharing ideas about their content to comment and look for responses - and they’re now likely feeling very ignored and abandoned.

How would you engage with those people if comments isn’t the way? What would you do next with these 1300 people?

(fyi the person who said this gave me permission to repeat it here)


#5

Unfortunately, it seems many companies that maintain an online presence don’t have the money (or decide not to spend the money) to hire moderators. I don’t know how many moderators, if any, NPR used; but they are very much needed in order to maintain courtesy and keep the conversation on track. (No, moderation isn’t a form of censorship-- if it’s done well, it’s just a means of keeping things flowing smoothly and not letting a thread get hijacked.) As you well know, in the print edition of a newspaper, editors select which letters to publish, and not every letter sees the light of day. Many online newspapers and news websites also have someone to select the best letters. But when it comes to publishing online comments in real time, that’s very different-- and it can quickly become overwhelming… and nasty. Even in the best of circumstances, some topics are going to become overtaken by trolls or folks who only want to rant. I still believe the best way to address this is to have moderators.

Okay fine, moderation isn’t perfect, and it does slow down a conversation. But I don’t know any other way to keep a discussion passionate but courteous. That said, I’m a former broadcaster and I know the importance of super-serving your heaviest users (listeners/viewers), so Andrew is correct in worrying that these NPR super-fans now must feel abandoned. But NPR could always decide to create some moderated discussion groups on certain key issues-- even the NY Times, which does have paid moderators, doesn’t allow comments on every article. I don’t know if there’s any ideal or perfect answer to this dilemma of our social media age, but I am hopeful that NPR will find a way to reach out to their super-fans and offer them some ways to express themselves. I’d be eager to hear from someone at NPR about their plan to reward their super-fans while avoiding the downsides of allowing real-time comments.


#6

You’re probably right that because the engagement numbers are low there is a systemic problem of some sort.

I posted a message to the Ombudsman report via Facebook. My thoughts, in brief:

  • A news organization is different from an academic publication in that it often must be responsive to deadlines. This means that sourcing for some issues can be hurried. A more thorough vetting of some topics, some of the time, can be addressed in comments. It’s an infrequent occurrence, but important.

  • I am not usually offended by it, but I find that NPR, WNYC, WBUR, PBS and NYT have a bit of an echo chamber – not only with respect to each other, but with respect to the “experts” they tend to draw upon. Commenting allows for additional voices to enter the fray. Sometimes – perhaps even often – those are unhelpful voices, but sometimes the later-mentioned “experts” are more nuanced, or better informed than the ones used in the original story.

  • The outlet misses an opportunity for readers to branch out and discover other stories, authors and viewpoints. This can happen in moderated comments such as "We mentioned this in another story " or “Author X has some strong views about that …” etc.

  • Also rare, but importantly, sometimes the storytelling that happens in the comments is powerful. Here I think of the community that for a time flourished around the cancer reporting done by the late Leroy Sievers. A separate web site evolved, and a support network that for a time helped others afflicted with the disease.

  • The commenting software mechanics were weak (as are most). It was difficult or impossible to mute unruly threads or commenters. Threading was handled like email, which is the minimum for this type of discourse, but more and better approaches and technologies are possible.

  • A human touch, assisted by software is needed. I doubt if there’s a short cut around this challenge. Speaking with a moderator for a LinkedIn group, even choosing not to post offensive messages by a commenter can lead to hostile threats – even legal action (probably unfounded, but which must be at least addressed). There is probably no silver bullet.

  • There is a tendency to eschew academic references because they are behind pay walls. Understandable, but what’s left is often opinion or not well-balanced. Take the disputes over GMO’s for a recent example of this.

  • It should be easier to quote and cross link, both to snips of the original story text, as well as to comments. Mechanical problems can further topic drift, always a problem.

  • Site personalization and preferences techniques for each user can assist.


#7

For what it is worth, Devorah, NPR did (does?) actively moderate some of their comment spaces. People went to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and threatened legal action! Here’s Gene Demby, one of their staff, but worth reading really his entire timeline today on it:

So one day, I was told to stop moderating them. I never engaged, never deleted. We let them do what they do.

— Gene Demby (@GeeDee215) August 22, 2016

Needless to say, he’s pretty thrilled comments are being turned off, and also indicates in the thread that he felt a “huge psychic burden evaporate” when it was no longer part of his job to moderate.


#8

Given the subject matter of Gene Demby’s work, and the general NPR/commenting audience demographics, I completely understand his perspective. Maybe comments should never have been allowed on Code Switch, or at least approached in a different way.

Blanket policies across a site, with no consideration for subject matter or author experience, can sometimes harm more than help IMO.


#9

The Director of Engagement has tweeted out some thoughts, specifically tagging us (and only us) in them. I’m going to reproduce them below, clarify something, and invite him to this space.



A few people - including some journalists who are writing about this issue - have been asking for my response to the NPR decision. It’s important to separate NPR’s decision from the broader question, “Should every site follow their lead?”

I have a lot to say in response to this question. It’s a very different question from “Did NPR do the wrong thing?” - but I probably haven’t been clear enough in separating the two when talking about that wider issue. I apologize. I’m going to try and write more clearly here what I want to say.

I don’t have any information about NPR’s investment or approach to the comment space. NPR faces several unusual issues with building community around its shows vs its member stations, among many other areas. I have no clue about NPR’s strategy, past or present, and I don’t have anything particular to say about their decision as an organization. That isn’t my focus, or my interest. I value NPR’s work and I believe they’re trying to make the best decisions for their audience.

What I do know is that many other news organizations invest little in community spaces, including comments, because they don’t see a connection between these spaces and either their journalistic mission or their bottom line. I think that is a mistake. But if that is your policy, and your comments are a problem, then I think you should close your comments.

Comments are not the only way to engage an audience and invest in community, and I’m excited to see what NPR does next in this area. Social media has a role to play in this, but I think it is a big mistake for most news organizations to conduct community engagement only on social media platforms. I’ve written about this elsewhere - I’m happy to go over some of those arguments if you’re interested.

Comments as a medium also can be a valuable tool for onsite engagement and community - and there’s a lot more work that can be done in this area. That’s part of what we’re doing (but only a part.)

I agree with everything that Patrick Cooper tweeted above. Yes, we need more voices like Gene Demby’s in the mix as we figure out these issues. Yes, comment spaces currently don’t fit everyone’s web habits. (I’m not sure if any strategy can, but that’s another topic.) Yes, the industry needs to change its model in respect to community and comments. Yes, broadening your audience takes a lot more than just moderating the comments that come in. Yes, it’s a great time to reset and look ahead.

This is a time of experimentation, discussion, reinvention, evaluation. I’m really happy that people are talking about, and caring about audience engagement. There are many groups doing exciting work in creating technology and experiments to move their orgs, and the industry forward. I’m excited to see what NPR does next, and I’m excited to see where we can take not only comments, but community engagement tools and strategies of many different varieties.

We at The Coral Project want to encourage and support that work as much as we can. We’re creating open source tools and guides to help newsrooms of all sizes. We’re holding events, commissioning academic studies, writing guides, sharing information, pushing the conversation.

Let’s make the future of engagement better for everyone.


#10

Andrew, this “what about the superfans” seems somewhat shortsighted to me: NPR has a lot more than 1,300 superfans. (Even if only 1% of the people who follow their main page on Facebook are in that category, that is 50,000 people. And I suspect it is more than 1% of their FB followers.) Certain kinds of superfans just categorically are more damaging than positive - they engage, yes, but not in a way that is healthy for them for the product.

I find it interesting that NPR’s approach seems to implicitly suggest that many small, fractured conversations that people are having around the articles on their social networks is better than one, monolithic, central conversation. In 2016, the comment approach (including, as far as I can tell, Coral’s?) implies that the central conversation is better. (That was not true in, say, 2001, when the options were either centrally-hosted comments or none at all.) What’s the strongest case for the value of centralized discussions? I’ve not seen anyone make that, and wonder if this group has written it out somewhere.


#11

Hi Luis

Some great points there. I don’t know the NPR commenting community well enough to comment on that part. You could well be right.

The question about “is a central conversation useful” is a fascinating one. (I don’t want to get into “Better” - there are pros and cons to all approaches, and it’s up to orgs to find the right combination for their users and their goals.)

While not disputing the value of distributed discussions via social and other spaces, I think there are a few reasons why single conversations, hosted on site, hold value for everyone.

For end users
• Centralized discussions provide an opportunity to see a breadth of responses
• If readers are looking for any counterpoints to a piece, the comments on the page could be likely to provide them without the need to search elsewhere
• There is (I assume, I haven’t seen any data on this) a higher likely likelihood that commenters alongside an article have read the article vs commenting next to a link on social media
• If journalists were be more involved on the site, then this would seem a natural place for clarifications/deeper research to be posted, in response to reader queries. Also a higher likelihood that the journalist/editor will see the responses
• Users can develop ongoing relationships in connection with the news organization via its conversation spaces
• Onsite conversation spaces have the potential to be safer, with moderation enforced with more precision than social media platforms allow

For publishers
• Onsite centralized spaces can lead to opportunities to deepen the relationship between the journalism and the end users - which can be developed to find sources, conduct research, employ journalists, find ideas, as well as invite to events, get feedback, invite to subscribe, etc
• Onsite centralized spaces can be better controlled, developed
• Onsite centralized spaces mean that user data isn’t lost to social media platforms
• Onsite centralized spaces mean that the publisher isn’t handing over control of its audience engagement to a platform that could compete with them (eg via Facebook Instant Articles), make them pay to reach more people (eg Facebook), or has inadequate safety/moderation tools (eg Twitter)

These are a few off the top my head, anyway. What do you think? Do these arguments hold up?