No more pie fights, or how news organizations can elevate online discussion

Greg Barber is Director of Digital News Projects for The Washington Post, and has been reading, thinking about and interacting with readers in online forums since 1997. As part of Bridge’s ongoing conversation about comments, we asked Barber to talk to us about how reader comments are evolving and how we at Bridge can improve our own. The following was edited and condensed.

BRIDGE: So, when news-on-the-internet was young, some people envisioned comments as this thing with great potential for reader interaction that might add a new dimension to stories, make them better and more interesting. Instead, we got trolls and “don’t read the comments” became a catchphrase. What went wrong?

We news organizations happened. We approached it the way we approached it, which became rather stagnant. Comments on news sites today are exactly the same thing we’ve seen for 10-15 years, and they haven’t evolved the way the internet has. As part of my work with the Coral Project (a Knight Foundation-funded Mozilla/New York Times/Washington Post collaboration to help publishers build communities around their journalism), I’ve been out talking with news organizations about their approach to comments – hundreds of people, 130 or so different news organizations. Some folks have a really strong strategy about their digital communities, but by and large, lots of publishers don’t. I’ve read all the op-eds that talk about how terrible comments are, and I’ve read the stories from editors trying to do the right thing by shutting them down.

More coverage: Internet comments are where too many bullies come to play. Isn't there a better way?

By and large, we’ve put an empty box with no instructions on our pages, and then we’re shocked when readers put something there that we don’t like. Part of the challenge in evolving comments is technical: providing ways for publishers to scalably, efficiently engage with their best contributors. But we also need to change our approach. Comment sections can be good, they can be a public square, a place for new voices to surface. But we have to devote strategic thought to them.


BRIDGE: It seems as though, early on, publishers were advised – by lawyers, generally – that meddling in comments was a ticket to a courtroom, because if you allowed readers to chime in without moderation, you had to allow almost all of them. What happened to that strategy?

I don’t give legal advice, but I do know that there are plenty of readers who contribute in pleasant and insightful and sometimes inspiring ways without moderation. At The Washington Post, we have some commenters who are tremendously thoughtful. Commenters have provided interesting information, even about contentious topics, things that are eye-opening for the right reasons.

We just had a project launch called New Wave Feminism, and had writers write on what feminism means in 2016. And we opened the stories in the project to comments, which could have been a disaster. But we asked focused questions, the writers participated, and we made it a strategic point that violations would be dealt with and valuable comments would be highlighted, and it was a valuable conversation.

If people walk into a pie fight, they’ll pick up a pie. If they walk into a thoughtful conversation, many people, in my experience, will participate thoughtfully.

BRIDGE: Linking comments to Facebook accounts was supposed to fix the worst abuses by requiring people to comment under their own names, but it hasn’t done much.

Interacting with readers, being respectful and asking the right questions are all strategies that work. The Guardian announced recently that it’s paring back comments on some of its articles, especially where the conversation hasn’t been productive. The New York Times pre-moderates comments. The challenge there is that when you pre-mod, there’s not as much potential for free-flowing conversation, because posting is delayed until the moderator can get to them.

Commenters have told us that they comment because they want their voice to be heard. To improve comments, we need to establish a value structure that allows readers to understand what we’re looking for, what will get them highlighted.

Interacting in comments is one way that journalists can show readers that we value thoughtful contributions: We’re listening, we’re engaging with you. Honestly, I think that’s one reason this should be strategically important to news organizations – that give-and-take makes us special. So many readers get their news from social media, but Facebook isn’t an org that is reporting the news. Each of our organizations is. Readers can ask follow-up questions, and even influence our reporting. That’s very different, unique to news organizations, and we should take advantage of it.

BRIDGE: Moderation and having a full-time referee might work at the Washington Post or New York Times. How does a more modest publisher approach that?

Step back and ask what you want out of this space. A lot of news organizations see comments as something that came with the internet box. But what, strategically, do you want from comments? A connection with readers? Personal stories, opinions?

We scrutinize every pixel on our pages. Every space has a goal. What is the goal for your interactive space? Once you figure that out, decide what you want to do to get there. People who comment tend to be your most loyal readers. How can we make it clear what we want to have in this space? How can we show them we’re watching and what they’re saying matters?

BRIDGE: What role do writers play?

Writers worry about interacting with readers in comments, but they interact on Twitter all the time. It’s situational, and without much reason; trolls can be just as troublesome on Twitter. And none of us control Twitter. We control comments on our own sites. I’ve had experiences where interacting with users can be a loyalty factory. Certainly people who are doing well on Twitter know that.

I’ll give an example: We were doing a period of site maintenance (when some functions would be unavailable), and we let readers know. So I walked into one of our communities, and there was a snarky conversation (about it) going on. I explained what was happening, and the conversation immediately improved. Interacting with users is a great way to humanize your organization, and forge human connections with your readers. That kind of connection can happen. Once they know you, you’ve bought a fan. And for a writer, that person can follow you throughout your career.

So, readers, time to chime in: What do you think would improve Bridge comments? Would you welcome the chance to interact with our writers? Join the conversation.

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Fri, 02/19/2016 - 1:48pm
Some news organizations have got a very thin skin, I recently posted a comment on a Lansing area TV stations facebook page saying basically that their "Hollywood minute" news segment was frivilous. They didn't like that and removed the comment. LOL.
Sun, 02/21/2016 - 8:47am
Granted the news org has the ability to offer commenting or not. It does seem to me that if they do for some of their stuff, they should for ALL. Regarding moderation and intemperate commenters...once there's a forum the first amendment applies (though I'm sure some folks don't agree and will try to stifle us). The real moderator is the reader. What would improve the medium is a way for the reader to filter what comments they want to read, based on some criteria that they set. Comments off-topic, ad hominem or profane can sometimes be amusing, though usually they are just really annoying. That aside, I resist the suggestion that they should be censored.
Barry Visel
Sun, 02/21/2016 - 11:13am
Your question about interacting with your writers is confusing...doesn't leaving a comment imply interaction?, or don't your writers read the comments? For the most part I don't think Bridge has a problem with the comment section at this time...but I have been surprised that your writers or editors don't engage more.
Mon, 02/22/2016 - 1:14pm
Me too, actually. A solid observation that also applies at newspaper sites, generally. I recognize the.(seemingly) unproductive time demand of monitoring comments under the last story when a writer is working on the next one, but an end-of-the-day routine of glancing at comments whenever practical would be a smart practice to cultivate.
Sun, 02/21/2016 - 11:20am
I think the comments just reflect the way society is today. Many would agree that the media, despite their own protestations, is highly liberal. If one just looks at Bridge, they claim to be non-partisan, but the roll call of their authors is highly slanted toward the left. Many in this country are just sick of the media telling us who to vote for, how to think, and what is correct thought.
Jim H
Sun, 02/21/2016 - 2:38pm
I think the Comments section is one of the best features of an article. I almost always go to the comments section after reading an article, and enjoy the back and forth that the article engendered. Often a great wit is discovered that brings a smile to my face (e.g: an article on one of Bill Clinton's love interests showing up in the news again elicited the following - "Bill's 'chicks' are coming home to roost!'" Sublime! I have generally found that the quality of the publication will largely determine the quality of the responses, even though trolls show up everywhere. This publication is a good example of high quality (even if leaning to the left). The Atlantic, Washington Post, and Ars Technica are additional examples where smart and entertaining comments can be found.
Mon, 02/22/2016 - 8:27am
Some comment systems allow the community to vote up or down on each comment. If a comment receives too many down votes, it is removed or hidden automatically. While not perfect, it provides a way for the community to police its own, and for the publication to establish its own acceptability standards according to community likes/dislikes.
Mon, 02/22/2016 - 6:07pm
Hi Bryan -- I agree that news sites could leverage community ratings much more than they do, although basing visibility of a comment on up/down voting alone could create a scenario in which groups of commenters could silence one another. I like the idea, though, of having the community-rating piece as part of a larger set of qualitative measures that, taken together, help to manage contributions to the community.
Mon, 02/22/2016 - 6:23pm
I would love to see an interactive weighted data model in the comment forms. It can get pretty convoluted, but someone out there can surely make a simplified tool for it. Imagine not just voting up or down, but ranking on a scale multiple factors, and on your reply as well as the original comment or article. I can say whether I like a comment or not, if it is accurate or not, if it is helpful or not. When I reply, I can label my own comment as being an opinion about the article, or a technical correction, an addition, or about the subject in general. These then can get voted on by the comment community to regulate if they were coded correctly. And comments sites can also have the ability for anonymous or signed-in commenters, the affect being tailored content in the comment section. You can weight, on your profile, what kind of comments you are interested in reading. Do I want to see comments by others with similar profiles or voting habits? Do I want to only see opinions on the article and not the subject in general? There are a lot of comments I'm just not that interested in, how can data-driven forums enhance the article? I find it a difficult medium to have an actual human conversation, so why would we treat it like one? I would much prefer to answer a survey about the article. If there were a way to sort and sift (how do you merge similar comments?) so I could then comment on those, that could be interesting. A non-human conversation online could look more like a call and response... the comment sections are mined for common arguments and opinions, then the article's author can reframe the topic discussion into its manageable parts, sending a message out the commenters. they comment again on whichever parts they want, and the author sends a final summary of the discussion. Just a thought :)