I’ve long advocated that newspapers include comment sections on their online stories, to provide readers with the opportunity to discuss, extend or even correct those news articles. Independent news websites and bloggers have used comment functionality to build large and loyal audiences, who by their participation can help the publisher provide more, and more accurate, information to the larger, non-commenting community.
Unfortunately, even after all these years, too many newspaper comment sections don’t live up to that ideal. The unmoderated comment sections in many of the local newspapers I read remain cesspools where the most bigoted, selfish and crass individuals in a community find a welcoming platform to verbally assault readers.
So I’m taking this opportunity to change my advice: If, after all these years publishing online, you still can’t manage the trolls in your comments, don’t offer comments at all. Shut down that functionality. Leave online community to bloggers and other publishers in the community who can manage them responsibly.
To that end, here are Robert’s Revised Rules for comments on online news story pages:
1. If the author of an article isn’t willing or able to participate in the discussion about that article, no opportunity for discussion should be offered on the site.
Someone must provide leadership in any online community. And that’s what a comments section is, a forum for your publication’s reader community. If you aren’t willing to assume that leadership, someone in the community will, and, unfortunately, that’s often whatever bully who can’t find an open forum anyplace else.
Don’t leave this job to some other staff member, such as a producer in the online department. At this point, people in your town have plenty of places online to discuss your publication’s articles: Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist, community blogs and forums, etc. The one thing – the only thing – a discussion on your site about a specific article or post has that they don’t is the author of that article or post. That individual needs to be one monitoring and participating in the discussion.
Otherwise, you lose the crowd-sourcing benefit that an online community can provide, and lose the opportunity to offer your readers the one benefit no competitor can – the chance to converse with your writers.
It’s like being in high school and throwing a party. If you can get the prom queen and the class president at your party, why wouldn’t you? If you don’t, everyone’s just going to go to the party down the street instead.
2. Once you open an article up to comments, you have a responsibility to manage them.
Newspaper websites fell behind online start-ups in managing communities because newsrooms staffs remained primarily concerned with producing news stories, as they always have. Many online publishers and bloggers, however, lacking news staffs, first concerned themselves with cultivating a discussion with their readers.
In other words, on newspaper websites, when the article goes up, that’s the end of the production process. On community-focused websites, when the article goes up, that’s the beginning.
If a newspaper is going to open articles on its site to comment and discussion, its reporters will have to do both jobs – produce the article and manage the discussion. This required fundamental rethinking of a reporter’s job. If a news publisher is not willing to support that change with training, guidance, evaluation and reward, then it shouldn’t pretend to go there in the first place.
3. Online news publishing systems should allow discussions to be enabled or disabled for individual authors, or even articles.
In every large newsroom I’m worked with, or walked through, over the past decade, there have been some folks eager and able to take on the responsibility of leading a reader community and others who would rather keep doing their jobs the way they’ve always done.
Not enabling comments denies the first group the chance to build a more engaged and loyal audience for the publication. But turning comments on without buy-in form the second group leaves those comments open to unchecked rants from community wackos.
Handle comments on an individual basis, then, allowing leaders within the newsroom to establish models for those in the second group to watch, learn and, ultimately, follow.
Flexibility with comments in the publishing system also allows writers and editors to turn off comments for pieces that they consider inappropriate for discussion, or even ones published at times when the author won’t be available to moderate.
4. Silencing people terminates your relationship with them.
How should a writer manage a discussion of his or her work? The simplest approach is to delete any comments that the writer deems offensive, and let the others remain. But when you delete a comment, you send its author a message that you don’t care to have him or her in your community.
Perhaps that’s appropriate. But don’t forget that you’re trying to build a community here. While that involves kicking out destructive voices now and then, ultimately, you need to model for your community how to engage with people who aren’t posting in a thoughtful and responsible manner. That way, your community can learn how to handle the job of policing itself.
When someone starts to rant, challenge him or her. Ask why. Interview that person, as you would any source. Try to elicit a story. In my experience, often a hostile person is angry over something specific that’s happened to him or her and simply failing to direct that anger. Ask, and often I find I can get those people to calm down, open up and engage in a responsible conversation.
Of course, that doesn’t always happen. Some people are too far gone with their anger to engage in an online community in a responsible manner. Some folks simply are foul-mouthed bigots and unwilling to change. But when you banish those voices, others in the community will see that you tried – and, more importantly, how you tried – to engage them first. That wins loyalty… and models appropriate behavior for all participants.
5. Criticizing your work is not inappropriate behavior. Most sites ban anyone who makes threats or attacks others on the site. As they should. But writing that you, or some other writer on the site did a lousy job isn’t an attack. It’s criticism, and you need to know the difference if you’re going to manage an online community responsibly. (Especially when those critics are correct.) Banning people simply for criticizing staff members is the surest way to force everyone to that other party down the street.
Notice that I’ve written nothing about anonymous comments. Or whether comments should be held for review before publication. That’s not because I don’t care about those issues, or don’t have an opinion. I do. But I’ve also found that an individual publication’s stand on those issues doesn’t determine whether it manages its comment community successfully or not. I’ve seen great discussions with and without anonymous posters. As well as lousy ones. I’ve seen great conversations both with and without prior review. And lousy ones, too.
The determining factor in quality is not anonymity or prior review. It is always leadership, or the lack of it. If publishers will not accept the responsibility of leadership in their communities, they should at least shut down their comments and defer that leadership to other publishers within their community, instead of letting that leadership fall to the cranks, bigots and profane who pollute unmoderated comment sections online.