Are you killing your comments?

OJR reader Anna Haynes wrote in with a complaint, noting a mistake that too many online writers make:

“I see the same mistake made over and over again, by online-newbie media types who think that publishing their missives onto a blog is enough, that ‘2-way communication’ just means letting their readers talk (to each other, or to the wall) in the comments section; they don’t see dialogue between [non-troll] reader and blogger as part of the deal….

“[S]o I read the post, I ask a question in the comments, I get no answer. I *feel* like it’s rude, by my blogging etiquette; perhaps theirs is different?”

She’s right. Opening your stories and blog entries to comments represents just the first step in a long process of building an interactive relationship with your readers. I’ve written about the lost opportunities when news publishers do not solicit comments from their readers. Today, I’d like to write about the next steps – and identify three top mistakes that news publishers make to undercut their efforts at attracting smart reader comments.

Don’t read or respond to your readers’ comments

If you learn one thing from this column, let it be that “reader interactivity” is not a technical feature. Flipping a switch to turn commenting on does not make your site any more interactive than one that does not accept online comments.

Interactivity is a relationship, built not with computer code but with words exchanged by real, living people on both sides of the Web server. Yes, you need good computer code to help enable and manage these relationships. But the code alone won’t make them happen.

Nor can you expect readers to “talk amongst themselves.” They can do that anywhere else. If you want readers to talk on your website, you need to offer them the one unique feature that no other blog or discussion board can – the opportunity to talk to you (or your writers).

So schedule time to read the comments on your stories, and to respond to questions or allegations made by your readers. Again, smart software can make this job easier, by identifying URLs with new comments or even sending your e-mails when readers post to your articles.

Robin Miller’s advice on discussion boards applies here, too. Shutting down comments after a reasonable time can help ensure that you are not debating the same articles forever. Freeing yourself from the fear of having to respond to every article you’ve ever written should help your resolve to stay on top of the discussion over your recent pieces.

Looking for some positive examples? Haynes provided a few, along with some smart analysis, when I asked her who is doing this right:

“Of the more well read blogs, Jay Rosen at PressThink is excellent about responding to my and others’ comments – likewise Lex Alexander and John Robinson of the Greensboro News & Record, and of course, Dan Gillmor. With them, it *is* a dialog.

“In general, it seems like the smaller the blog’s readership, the greater should be the obligation to respond to the readers, but typically the initially-small-readership blogs from offline-culture organizations are the least responsive (which is behavior that will tend to *keep* their readership small).”

Respond too quickly, and too often, to readers’ comments

Yep, I’m throwing you a curve here. But as an apathetic writer can kill a conversation, so can an over-eager one.

Yes, if a reader asks a question directed at you, you should respond. But don’t rush to post the next comment after every question or observation. Allow your readers some time to respond to each other.

When you do respond to a question, do so in a way that invites other readers to provide answers as well. Don’t think of yourself as one party in a two-person conversation. Instead, think of yourself as a talk show host (or dinner party host, if you are allergic to talk radio), charged with the responsibility to keep the converation moving, and to get as many people involved in that conversation as possible. In my experience, the most thoughtful readers are not always the ones most eager to comment. You must coax those readers into your conversation. Then let them have the floor once they engage.

You can’t do that, of course, if you always demand the latest word.

Don’t give readers a place of their own place to talk

Smart, conversational comments sections will help attract more loyal readers to your website. But if you want to build your readership to an even larger level, you will need to give those readers a place to initiate their own conversations.

People don’t like to react all the time, sometimes, they need to initiate. (Sports analogy: No one wants to spend the whole game on defense. Now and then, you need to get your hands on the ball.) Even if an individual reader never starts a conversation on your website, trust me, they will feel more empowered by seeing other readers doing it.

So let them. Once you’ve established a tradition of responding to comments on your site, take the next step and open a space for readers to start their own conversations. Launch a discussion board, or enable readers to publish their own blogs on your site. [Like we just did here on OJR.] But do not forget that your, or your staff’s, participation is still needed.

Your writers’ participation in these discussions, or your writers’ comments on or links to readers’ blogs, helps cement the relationship between your website and your readers. Reader blogs and discussions can become a rich source for news leads, too. Just be sure to credit the original discussion or conversation.

The good news is that our readers do care about us, or at least about what we write. Let’s return that wonderful favor, and resolve to make better use of our websites to show that we care about our readers’ thoughts as well.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Mr. Niles:

    What a timely and necessary topic. I (still) count myself among the newbies that continues to wrestle with this issue, especially in the government arena.

    On a personal level, I feel that the registration-free comments option at LAFD News & Information makes for a more lively site – while on a professional level, it remains a challenge to moderate the comments of oft well meaning folks who fail to realize the need to stay on topic, avoid outright vulgarity, or ad-hominem attacks.

    Thankfully, the problems are few and far between as we move forward in this bold new digital era.

    Please keep up the great work, and thank you for this always invigorating forum.

    Respectfully Yours in Safety and Service,

    Brian Humphrey
    Public Service Officer
    Los Angeles Fire Department

  2. The posting on comments makes sense, and I agree with it. However, what is missing is emperical data showing that comments increase readership. Perhaps someone has done some work on this, but I haven’t seen it.

  3. On of the important things to keep in mind while managing comments is that you need a strong software system in place to help you prevent comment spam, which is as harmful as apathetic writers in killing a vibrant discussion community.

    FWIW, I think that an e-mail verified registration system is a must, though other webmasters have had success with captchas, syntax filters and URL blacklists to allow open comments, while stopping spammers.

    Ultimately, though, this is another reason why someone in a news organization needs to be reading comments — so that you can see spam as it happens, then erase it promptly and take steps to prevent it in the future.

    As for OJR, please, if you ever encouter a software glitch on the site, don’t hesitate e-mail me using the “Contact the editor” link at the bottom of every OJR page. I’ll try my best to track down the problem. (We’ve been pretty spam-free, knock on wood, but in the past we’ve had problems with cookies and style sheet snafus in some browsers. Not to mention the occasional server reboot. But those, fortunately, are rare.)

  4. Blogs and cellphones, and blogging with your cellphone… It’s a wonder that journalists have enough time to do the necessary footwork and fact-checking required to write a solid news story. That’s really the only important thing, isn’t it? Responding to comments is nice if you have the time. However, spending a few minutes with your family now and again could be a higher priority. Yes? No? Maybe?

  5. This is a good idea and suggestions. But sometimes, I feel like too much comment posts by the author of the blog is irritating. The option for this could be answering the questions in the comment itself (by using editing comment).

  6. This comment thread reminded me of something I forgot in the piece on lessons learned:

    Via the comments on a site, there are far more “citizen copy editors” than there are citizen journalists.

    Robert, on the topic of killing your comments, I wonder why you lock down comments on old articles. (I was originally going to post this on the other story.) I’ve always thought that was a spam-blocking measure, but I’d imagine that with your registration mechanism that wouldn’t be a problem here. We get a lot of substantive comments on our site on old content that people find via search.

  7. Hi Mike,

    I’ve two reasons for closing the comment window on OJR articles (that go beyond the reasons Robin Miller laid down in his article, hyperlinked above.)

    First, it’s a time resource issue. (which goes to Thomas’ comment). I want to keep my eye on all comments posted to OJR. And it is much easier for me to do that if I need track only articles from the past two weeks. I could open the window, and write into the OJR content management system a process that would e-mail me whenever an older article got a new comment, but that brings me to the second reason.

    Second, it is a reader usability issue. If someone takes the time to comment on an OJR article, I want other readers to see that comment, too. And few, if any readers, are going to take the time to browse through the archives to see what old articles have gotten new comments since their last visit.

    I could modify the CMS, again, to reorder our archives that way (as the discussion board is now ordered). But given that the primary appeal, to date, at least, of OJR has been the articles, rather than the comments to the articles, I think we better serve more readers by ordering the archives by publication date instead.

    Of course, I could give readers the option to sort the archives either way. But, frankly, I haven’t yet thought that the value of doing that was worth the effort.

    In my experience, most people read and respond to articles within a couple days of publication. Given that links can take a few days to bounce around the media criticism blogosphere, two weeks pretty much covers the time window in which the vast majority of readers are going to comment on a typical OJR piece.

    If we get to the point where we are getting dozens of comments per piece, and that the comments are becoming ongoing discussions in their own right, I’ll go ahead and open the window and change the CMS. But at this point, we’re not there yet.

    Short answer: I don’t see a significant demand for comments (either making or reading them) after two weeks. If I see that demand arise, we’ll change the system. You always need to be ready to change your system to accomodate your readers’ needs.

  8. Also to Thomas’ comment, reader feedback can become part of the reporting and editing process, as I wrote last month.

    I think that most journalists, and most news managers, overestimate the quality of journalism that their organizations do. If you are producing high quality journalism that’s truly connecting with your audience, you’ll then see the results in strong readership, growing circulation, and reader demographics that include both young and old readers. If you’ve got all that, you don’t need advice from someone like me.

    However, if your readership and circulation are declining and your publication’s reader demographics are skewing older, perhaps your publication is not serving its potential audience as well as it could be. Inviting readers to a place on your website can be a way of shaking things up and, if you do it right, improving the quality of your publication’s coverage of its community.

    But you’ve got to be committed to do it right. And that means reading and responding to reader feedback. If you are not willing to do that, then, don’t bother asking for it. You’ll have to find some other way of reversing a circulation decline, as you also compete with an increasing number of websites that do value listening to and conversing with your readers.

  9. Jeff Wilson says:

    I’ve become a big fan of Kevin Roderick doesn’t allow comments on his site, and it only adds to the professionalism of the site, in my opinion. He still allows feedback- just via email. Then he posts the best of those emails, just like a Letters to the Editor section. Works well for him.

    Comments on my site have generally been beneficial, though I disabled anonymous/captcha comments awhile ago. I want people to take ownership of what they say.

    I’m going to keep comments for now, but I will also a tag at the bottom of each post with my email address.

    I built a discussion forum Day 1 into my website, and although it is under utilized, it does allow for readers to post polls, threads, and other content that doesn’t belong on the main site.

  10. Blogs are okay, but I’m thinking that bloggers should be hired to maintain them. If a reporter has a spare minute to have a discussion with a blogger and readers, great. If not, no problem.

  11. Hi Robert,

    Fantastic article. I agreed with every word of it. At BBC Sport we are increasingly getting our journalists to interact with their audience.

    It’s not been without its challenges – even the best feature will be rubbished by at least one reader. I think one of the lessons we have learned is that the journalist should just rise above the brickbats and focus on the sensible comments. And if they do that you can get some discussions which are just as, if not more, engaging to follow that the initial article.

    Have a look at this piece by one of our main writers and follow the comments underneath, and the writer’s participation in that:

    We’re lucky that we have a section of our site, away from the main news coverage, where journalists can express opinion and where, as you say, users can start their own conversations.

  12. Really good points. Everything here rings true for me.