In group discussions with American and German newspaper editors last week, I noticed a trend among the Americans: None of them were happy with the comments on their stories and editorials, but practically all of them reported having tried my suggested responses without success.
Which left me wondering: If none of the practices I suggested worked for these newspapers, then why do they seem to work so well at other sites? And rather than just accepting that comments on news stories are America's No. 1 troll breeding ground, what can be done about this nationwide disappointment?
WHY COMMENTS SUCK
- Because you don't value them. Let's face it: Newspapers were slow to add comments and many if not most people in the newsroom thought they were a bad idea to begin with. The winning argument for comments was often page-loads, not engagement with readers, and it shows. If you don't have policies that encourage your editors and writers to read and participate in comments, and user agreements that speak about positive values of civil behavior, then your comments ghetto is really just a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Because you think you can't touch them. Why are newspaper people so convinced they can't "moderate" comments? In part it's because they don't understand the legal principle behind the "prior approval" policy, but it's also because two-way community involvement is a job few journalists actually want. Listen: If you want good comments, you simply have to think of them as a dinner party at your house. You wouldn't let one guest's bad behavior ruin everyone else's time, and you wouldn't invite people to your house and then spend the evening in another room. If you're going to have comments, you must set the tone or live with the consequences.
- Because you don't have time. Because of staff cuts. Because of new initiatives. Because of work loads. You could do all these things for comments, "but right now we need to focus on the core product." And by core product you mean the print edition.
- Because you're afraid. Not because you're a chickenshit, but because comment threads between professional journalists and anonymous trolls are intimidating. It reverses the asymmetrical relationship and puts you in the hot seat. And how can you deal with trolls in a way that's effective, doesn't demean your own value, and supports the good commenters? And can you be human without calling down the wrath of some senior editor who insists you adhere to some outdated inhuman standard? Those are good reasons to be afraid.
- Because you're not a community. Have you ever noticed that online communities tend to have great comments -- even if there's a great deal of disagreement? But most newspapers aren't communities, and for all our talk about loving our geographic communities, we're not actually a PART of those communities. You can't be a one-way communicator and be part of a community. You must be reachable --and vulnerable.
HOW TO UN-SUCK THEM
- If they're bad, reboot the system. As my brilliant wife, Janet Edens Conover, suggested recently, if a newspaper's comments have gone horribly, horribly wrong, the best solution may be a fresh start. Do some research, talk to people with some experience, come up with a plan and then shut down your old system. Wipe it clean. And when you launch the new system and invite your readers back, do so with full transparency. Tell them what you're doing, why you're doing it, and what they can expect from here on out.
- Invest staff time. Should editors read every comment that gets posted? No. But as the people at LJWorld learned, you really don't have to read every comment to monitor the most likely trouble spots. Get smart about your comments, learn to use your time wisely, and make comment review and involvement part of your newsroom workflow. And by all means, get your writers involved in their comment threads.
- Get better tools and learn how to use them. Waiting for users to flag an offensive comment and then summarily deleting it and banning the user isn't comment moderation. It's a tool box with only a sledge hammer in it. Learn about ideas like ghosting, disemvowellment, comment editing, etc. And if you're allowing anything that resembles anonymous commenting, stop that right now.
- Use pictures. Sure that sounds simplistic and childish, but if you provide an opportunity for users to create or select an avatar, you've already taken a big step toward improving the level of discourse in your comments. Trolls tend to be people who think the Web is an anonymous, nasty place where they are free to act out pathologies they hide in the real world. Anything you can do to personalize the identities of your commenters reduces that sense of anonymous hostility. And if you REALLY want to improve things, program a feature that lets comments users build reputation points. Gamers could teach us a thing or two.
- Learn how to talk with people. When I'm speaking in public, I stand behind a lectern and I use a particular set of skills. The more I hone those skills, the better I get at public speaking. But if I'm talking with people at a cookout and I use those same skills in that setting, I'm just an asshole. The problem print journalists face in the online world is that newswriting for print is a lot like public speaking, but writing online is more like talking with the other patrons at a neighborhood bar. Your tone has to be different. You have to engage people directly. You have to let them talk. And if you act like a stuck-up phony, you're likely to get your ass kicked.
One last thing: Stop making excuses. I know none of this is easy, but you really should have only one choice -- either have comments and do them properly, or don't offer comments at all. And if you're offering them solely to increase page traffic to boost revenues, give up. Just quit. You're hopeless.
I think you should choose quality and engagement, because that's where I think the future has to lie. Choosing shoddy is a bad idea these days.