January 12, 2017 Last Updated 8:39 am

What do website commenters want? New survey of 20 news websites seeks to find out

The project, funded by The Coral Project, a collaboration between The New York Times, The Washington Post and Mozilla, adds to our understanding of the traits of readers on news sites, and will assist publishers thinking about comment moderation

The publisher of this website (me) is a sucker for good research. When I entered the newspaper business it was at a time when newspaper publishers swore by their market and reader research. We sold using the numbers, and when the numbers did not come out to our advantage we came up with new numbers. The Hearst-owned Herald Examiner may been seen as the downscale newspaper compared to the Los Angeles Times, but in two zip codes we had ’em beat!

Today, a subject that always has my interest is reader comments. Comments help build community, and community is the key to Internet publishing. It has been this way from the beginning.

But comment threads that are filled with trolls, rude commenters, or comment spam, cause more harm than they are worth – they destroy community. That is why those that have a hard and immovably opinion regarding comments are not looking at the real world. I respect the decision, for instance, of some science magazines to drop their reader comments. I also respect the decision of other publications to keep them open. This is an important, and sometimes personal decision.

The Engaging News Project has come out with their findings from a survey of 20 news sites and I bet you will find the information fascinating. Check out <strong>the whole survey here (PDF).

The project was funded by The Coral Project, a collaboration between The New York Times, The Washington Post and Mozilla, supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. News sites involved were the Alaska Dispatch News, AL.com, The Arizona Republic, The Atlantic, Civil Beat, The Dallas Morning News, Deseret News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, KXAN, PBS NewsHour, Philly.com, The Seattle Times, Southern California Public Radio/KPCC, The State Journal- Register, The Texas Tribune, TribLIVE, Twincities.com / St. Paul Pioneer Press, Voice of San Diego, The Washington Post, and Willamette Week.

There is a lot in the report, and I will be spending the weekend going over it a few times. But let’s start with preferences, what do readers want? From the report:

  • Around three-quarters want journalists to clarify factual questions and experts to respond to comments.
  • Just over half want journalists to actively contribute and just under half want newsrooms to highlight quality comments.
  • Approximately a third want sites to allow anonymous posting and a similar percentage want journalists to direct the conversation.

I really think that second item, wanting journalists to contribute, is vitally important. Many advocates of open comment threads say this is how readers get involved, and how journalists will get feedback.

But if all journalists read the comments on their stories I believe many editors would begin to sweat a little, they know how those threads can become places of misinformation and propaganda – they would probably advocate for a heavier touch when it comes to comment moderation. Besides, if a thread contains over a thousand comments, how does a journalist decide what merits a response?

The report also found that about a third of readers want the news sites to allow anonymous commenting. here is where I would want more information, as I don’t see 33 percent as a significant vote for anonymous commenting. What do the respondent think of demanding registration before commenting, or real name commenting, or moderation before publishing? These are all important questions.

Like other surveys I have read, this one, too, finds that there is a group of readers who post comments on a daily basis. The Guardian last year ran an excellent piece on their own research, you can find it here. For The Guardian, the issue of comment moderation was at the center of what they were looking to find out.

But what everyone seems to see is that there is a small subset of readers who do the most commenting. These readers, though, may not be subscribers, and here is where I feel some news sites may need to crack down. Not every nonsubscriber is a troll, but most trolls are non-subscribers. Right? Maybe, but each publisher should know what the situation is on their own website.

Does that mean non-subscribers should be excluded? I think some sites, such as The Washington Post, are recording big gains in web traffic precisely because they have almost no moderation of comments. As a result, the comment threads on many Post stories, especially just before the election, looked more like Breitbart News than the NYT. I have said to colleagues that I consider the Post to be the most right-wing newspaper in America, far more right-wing than the NY Post or any other… if considering a paper’s position on the political spectrum solely based on its comment threads.

Is that fair? Well, consider just this one story: Obamacare is one step closer to repeal after Senate advances budget resolution. Kelsey Snell and Mike DeBonis wrote less than a thousand words. But the story has over 2,400 comments. The “content” contributed by readers dwarfs that of its journalists, and if the comments are filled with trolls, or bots, they will overwhelm the conversation.

What the Engaging News Project found that on some large news sites those that wrote comments did so frequently, while on other news websites, the contributors did so only occasionally. Also, 78 percent of commenters on each site identify as exclusive commenters – that is, they write comments only on one website.

I think this survey provides some great information, but just as importantly, will lead to improving future surveys on the same subject.

  • bob 11 months ago

    Lol. This will only go one way, READ ONLY. I remember years ago when forums were big business, or rather, there were loads of them. They were real communities. The problem was that lowest common denominator posting always overshadowed anything else. People that lived on the forum. People that banged up to respond to their own pals posts but never ‘outsiders’. Intelligent people making intelligent commnets only to be shot down by simplistic and putile unintelligent responces. Forums are pretty mucha thing of the past now. Article comments are not the same thing. You dont make friends and virtually never go back. Its a long list of mostly unattached random statements, usually politically/socially forecful and extreme. For me, and I imagine most people, commenting is a purile way of expressing yourself. The grown up thing is to not waste 20 minutes writing somthing that might not get accepted and might not get read and will be ancient history next week. What I mean is, people like me and I dont think im alone, comment because they feel the need to express themselves, its a selfish action. I want to say something. I might read a few other posts, but will only comment because I want to express myself further. I have always said, people with a life in the real world are often detached from the internet. What we see are people like me that have nothing better to do that live on the internet. I’d like to think iim not as sad as that. But am I.

    Well, I dont comment much and do have an escape plan. But my point is, in relation to your article that that I saw linked on THE DIGITAL READER as im a writer, that comments are pretty stupid really. What I mean, like the forums of years ago, the people that host the commetns will only find that they are not actually worth the hassle. They are giving life support to people that have nothing better to do and its at the service providers expence. A commenter will go through several stages of emotion, first the NEED to comment, then the importance of typing somethign important, and then the satisfaction of having done it. Thats a small sense of something you cant sell, that a person has taken from a free service. I dont know if im being clear, but nothing comes for nothing, in principle. but comments are free. There is a thing called supply and demand. Historically people had to make friends to express themselves with. They might have gone to a pub, made a friend and commented on things with them. Now, pubs are out of business because people can satisfy that need on a commetn section, feel good (or remorseful after thats another 20 minutes I lost) and pay nothing from it, and the chances are no one else will even benefit from it. Its a waste of human life. All forums these days have that element under control. They are typically static communities where the moderators are in command, and outsiders have to earn their way in. That social opportunity haas a price. The question for newspapers, is on balance, is it profitable to host comments? The problem newspapers have is really, is it profitable being a newspaper. THe answer is no really, sad as it is. Im exhausted now, i’ve had my 30 minutes of expressing myself, I need to get onto other importatn things. Cheers.