Should a local news publication take on an authoritative voice or serve as a conduit for community conversations? An argument could be made either way, but evidence suggests that encouraging reader discussion—either in a moderated comments section or on social media platforms—leads to greater page views and a more loyal audience.
As with so many other trends in local publishing, comments sections have gone through an evolution. They all but disappeared from public view around 2014, when publishers like Recode, The Week, Reuters, and Mic announced they were shuttering their comments sections within weeks of each other. Around that same time, publishers began steering readers toward their social media pages and encouraging conversations to take place on Facebook and Twitter.
Now, fears over the effect that changes to Facebook’s news feed algorithm could have on publishers are leading many local news sites to bring their comments sections back.
At the same time, publishers are finding that adding a comments section can boost page views, which in turn leads to greater advertising revenue. For example, at The Financial Times, readers who leave comments are 7x more engaged than readers who do not. Readers who comment regularly are also more likely to renew annual subscriptions.
The four goals that publishers should strive to achieve with their comments section are:
- To encourage the highest quality comments from readers
- To cultivate a loyal readership
- To strengthen trust between community members and the publication
- To generate new story ideas and potential sources
Of course, setting goals is easy. It’s meeting those goals that often proves challenging.
To raise the level of discourse in any comments section, a publisher needs to be present. Researchers at The Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin found that when journalists engage with commenters, uncivil comments drop by 15%. Commenters simply behave better when they know that someone is listening.
Reporters, editors, publishers, and even volunteer moderators should all be responding to valid questions, encouraging productive comments, thanking people for useful comments, and in some cases even asking questions of commenters when conversations in the comments section become particularly lively.
When comments that are libelous, inappropriate, or abusive do pop up—and they almost always will—they should be removed immediately. Publishers should be careful not to let abusive or challenging people dominate the comments section. Almost eight-in-ten Americans believe online services have a responsibility to step in when harassment occurs on their platforms, and 64% say online platforms should play a “major role” in addressing online harassment, according to a survey by Pew Research.
Stepping in to delete inappropriate comments not only raises the level of discourse and discourages copycat commenters, but it also establishes a greater level of trust between readers and publishers. Readers are more willing to engage and interact in a comments section when they feel protected from abuse.
Another way to improve the quality of comments on a local news website is by sponsoring commenter meet-ups. Happy hours, book clubs, speaker events, and even newsroom tours can all be used to bring online commenters together in the real world. Fostering a sense of community and moving the online world offline keeps commenters on their toes.
One of the more controversial ways to improve the quality of comments on a news website is to charge readers for the privilege of participating. Some publishers are charging readers for prominent placement of comments on their sites. Others are doling out “points” in exchange for positive actions, like visiting the site regularly or sharing links on social media. Those points can then be exchanged for access to the comments section. While this strategy is certainly innovative, it’s unlikely to work well for a smaller publication that’s still looking to grow the size of its audience.
To sum up the key points, there are three primary steps publishers should take immediately to improve the comments sections on their websites. These include:
- Encouraging reporters to respond to questions about their stories in the comments below their articles
- Deleting inappropriate or abusive comments as quickly as possible
- Sponsoring meet-ups and happy hours for top commenters