How to let readers comment

Steve Outing reminds us that, as Dan Gillmor put it, “The Internet is Read-Write, not Read-Only.” There is less distinction now between news producers (journalists) and news consumers (readers/viewers) and journalism is becoming more participatory.

The Internet is letting people who are not professional journalists become an important part of the news process, from news gathering to distribution to commentary to error recognition. All of this takes advantage of the fact that, as Gillmor says, “my readers definitely know more than I do, and, to my benefit, they share their knowledge.”

It’s therefore a shame that, in Outing’s words, “few traditional-media publishers seem to have the guts to invite the public in in a big way.” For fear of discussions becoming offensive, off-topic or just uninteresting, news sites commit three major sins that prevent their readers from ever having respectful, insightful and exciting discussions about the news.

  1. Many news sites have no discussion system at all. The most reader interaction these sites offer might be an e-mail address for the newsroom, or if you’re lucky, addresses for individual reporters.
  2. Most news sites that do offer discussion forums completely separate them from articles that might be the subjects of discussion. At in Alaska, there’s a “discuss this story in our discussion forum” link at the bottom of stories, which is better than completely isolating the forum with just a navigation rail link. But the link takes you to a forum front page rather than a forum thread for that particular article. If I wanted to post something, I’d have to choose which area — “General news”? “Alaska news”? — it belonged in and start a thread. But why would I bother, because how many other readers of that article would actually be able to see my comments? To take advantage of the medium, news sites need to display comments inline with articles, as this site does, or show a thread for each article that’s just one click away, as many bloggers do.
  3. Many news sites have moderated forums, which require a site producer to manually approve each comment before other readers see it. The Benton (Ark.) Courier does display reader comments right at the bottom of articles, but they show up “shortly” — not right away. I’m not saying that news sites will never receive unpublishable comments, but in my opinion it is better to keep discussions moving quickly by allowing free posting. Web staff can continually monitor discussions for anything that might need to be removed without having to approve everything beforehand.

By committing these three sins, most news sites are abandoning discussions of their own stories to the independent sites like Kuro5hin and Slashdot that thread discussions below their stories and allow unsupervised posting. Are there any news sites that understand how an article and readers’ comments can become more than the sum of their parts?

Take a look at the Arizona Daily Sun. At the bottom of article pages are unedited readers’ comments. Visitors can easily request removal of any offensive comments or personal attacks, or hide all the comments for the remainder of their session. The site asks:

Keep your comments civil. No personal attacks, please. Please direct your comments towards the story, not towards other users’ comments.

There’s also a section at the bottom left of their front page that tracks the most active discussions in the past month; right now an article about water politics has inspired 11 comments. Eleven comments doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a manageable number that others can actually absorb, as opposed to the hundreds of comments posted to Slashdot. Since many of the comments on the Daily Sun’s site actually do offer a reasonably cogent opinion or add information to the story, the site and the rest of its readers gain something from each article’s miniature “letters to the editor” section.

By avoiding those three sins of online discussions, the Daily Sun’s Web site offers definite “added value” over what is possible in print without even requiring much time of the site’s staff. It’s just a matter of having the right mindset — the mindset that readers aren’t zombies and do in fact have things to say — and then developing some simple software. Obviously the Daily Sun has that mindset. Lots of other news sites should start following its lead.

Comment by Julie, posted January 18, 2003, 12:10 am

The Sun's approach is very interesting, though I still have two strong concerns about allowing users to post unedited comments.

1. A mainstream newspaper Web site does not really want to gain a reputation for being unsuitable for children. I wonder how quickly they typically remove inappropriate comments. If I am a parent it doesn't so much matter to me that they WILL take a comment down if little Susie has just learned a little more about life and/or cursing than I wanted her to. If I were the Sun's Web manager I would have the comments start OFF and let the user choose to turn them ON.

2. They are still putting themselves in a questionable position in terms of publishing libelous material. You run a nice heart-warming story about Joe Local. Joe's ex is angry and posts all kinds of defamatory statements about him. Sure you take it down once notified, but once published, a retraction in print can certainly help mitigate penalties but does not eliminate responsibility, and it is unlikely that a different standard would be applied for online removal. It was still published. There has been established an opinion defense related to 'letters to the editor' which could apply, HOWEVER letters to the editor are reviewed by editors. If someone is defamed by a comment published on your news site and is upset about it, I believe he/she would have a very decent shot in a libel suit. Certainly the paper showed no malice in intent, but the plaintiff might get pretty far with reckless disregard.

Sure it's unlikely, but one pricey lawsuit can -- and should -- make a news site look VERY carefully at the value of allowing users to post unedited comments.

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This page last modified on Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 6:03 pm