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Reader Comments: Are They Worthwhile?

Posted on Tuesday, August 30, 2016 at 10:17 PM

Do reader comments on articles pay off?

By William Dunkerley

National Public Radio just dumped the comments section that followed its online articles.

Do you carry reader comments at the end of your articles? If so, how's that been working out for you? Is the feature worth the effort of maintaining it? Do the comments add to the total reader experience, even for those who choose not to post comments themselves?

This might be a good time to take stock.

Do Comments Boost Reader Engagement?

Reader comments have always been a part of publications, dating way back. In the print era they took the form of letters to the editor and were carefully edited. In the online environment there has been a range of approaches. Some comments are closely moderated by staff, others rely upon volunteers to do the housekeeping, and still other publications just let readers freely post what they want. Sometimes it's necessary to remove offensive comments in response to complaints.

The rush to open up comments online has been done largely in the name of reader engagement. One popular viewpoint is that an engaged reader will be a more satisfied one, and one more inclined to renew.

NPR couches its changed policy as a move forward. The announcement claimed that "the audience itself has decided for NPR, choosing to engage much more via social media, primarily on Twitter and Facebook, rather than in the NPR.org comments section."

In all candor, that sounds to me like an attempt to put a positive spin on something that many readers might view as a turn away from audience centricity.

But there might be some substance to NPR's contention. Elizabeth Jensen, ombudsman/public editor, presented reader support for dropping the comments:

"Mike Durio, of Phoenix, seemed to sum it up in an email to my office back in April. 'Have you considered doing away with the comments sections, or tighter moderation?' he wrote. 'The comments have devolved into the Punch-and-Judy-Fest of moronic, un-illuminating observations and petty insults I've seen on other pretty much every other Internet site that allows comments.' He added, 'This is not in keeping with NPR's take-a-step-back, take-a-deep-breath reporting,' and noted, 'Now, thread hijacking and personal insults are becoming the stock in trade. Frequent posters use the forums to duke it out with one another.'"

Which Readers Are Being Served?

It doesn't take much looking at the comment sections of online publications to see the problem. Not only can you readily see morons trading insults, but there is also plenty of blatantly offensive language, denigration of certain religious or ethnic groups, and even plainly libelous statements.

It all makes you wonder who is being served by these reader comments. Jensen examined that angle and added:

"I did find the numbers quite startling. In July, NPR.org recorded nearly 33 million unique users, and 491,000 comments. But those comments came from just 19,400 commenters, Scott Montgomery [managing editor for digital news] said. That's 0.06 percent of users who are commenting, a number that has stayed steady through 2016.

"When NPR analyzed the number of people who left at least one comment in both June and July, the numbers showed an even more interesting pattern: Just 4,300 users posted about 145 comments apiece, or 67 percent of all NPR.org comments for the two months. More than half of all comments in May, June and July combined came from a mere 2,600 users. The conclusion: NPR's commenting system -- which gets more expensive the more comments that are posted, and in some months has cost NPR twice what was budgeted -- is serving a very, very small slice of its overall audience."

So the cost-benefit equation for reader comments may not favor the practice. Nonetheless, I'm not so sure that NPR's tactic of simply referring commenters to Twitter and Facebook is the ultimate answer.

An Alternate Approach

Perhaps something like a "discussion club" might be a better approach. What I mean is some kind of online forum that is associated with your publication but separated from the articles. Readers could go there to post threaded comments.

If you make this available only to subscribers or registered readers, require that participants use their own verifiable names, and perhaps put in place some kind of posting quota, a lot of the objectionable behavior could likely be minimized. And it would keep the discussions out of the immediate view of readers who might not find them to be exactly their cup of tea.

But then there's still the question: Is it worth it?

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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