Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

10 Ways Newspapers Can Improve Comments

The other day Bob Garfield had a good kvetch about dumb comments on newspaper websites on his show, On The Media, and I posted my two cents, but I still don’t feel better. I think that’s because Bob’s partly right: comments do suck sometimes.

So, instead of just poking him for sounding like Grandpa Simpson, I’d like to help fix the problem. Here are ten things newspapers could do, right now, to improve the quality of the comments on their sites. (There are lots more, but you know how newspaper editors can’t resist a top ten list.)

  1. Require Accounts

    Anonymity is important in journalism, but not for comments.

    There are a lot of good reasons to allow anonymity, especially in the news. Sometimes a source needs to speak out against an employer or the government without being named. Fine. But there is no reason, really no reason at all, to allow people to post comments without having to first sign up for an account.

    Simply requiring an account will remove 80% of your comment problems. If allowing anonymity is important, you can allow the user to remove their name on a specific comment, while still requiring them to be logged in. (In other words, the user must log in so the system knows who they are, but they can opt to leave a comment as “Anonymous” if they choose. Anonymous comments could then be held in a special moderation queue for approval to guard against any bad uses.)

  2. Set and Enforce Rules

    Nobody likes finding out about a rule after they’ve broken it. Write a human-readable set of community guidelines (Flickr’s are excellent). Make all new members agree to it when they sign up, and link to it prominently from every comment form. This way, if you have to take action later, you can say “We warned you.”

    Then enforce the rules. Delete bad comments and publicly promote the ones that are great. There’s a common misconception that moderating comments makes you more liable. This is not true. Managing your community does not have any baring on your DMCA compliance, safe harbor standing, or any other legal issue.

  3. Employ a Community Manager

    If you can’t name your community manager, it’s probably you.

    You wouldn’t let a writer put their work in the paper without having someone check it, so why let commenters do so? If you’re going to have people posting comments to your site, it should be someone’s job to moderate them. Think of them as the editor of the Comment Desk.

    You don’t have to read every comment before it goes online, but it should be somebody’s responsibility to remove any comment that runs afoul of the posted community guidelines. Like graffiti in an urban space, bad comments lead to more bad comments. But the Community Manager should be more than a cop – they should be a vital connection between the staff and the community. They should lead the community by example, participating in the discussion and being helpful, and also do a daily “community weather report” for the staff, feeding the community’s input back into the newsroom.

  4. Sculpt the Input

    Just because your users can post comments doesn’t mean you can’t help them shape them.

    Back in the day, when we had people posting comments to Fray, we were constantly tweaking the form’s automated responses. If you tried to post something too short, it asked you to expand on it a bit. If you posted something too long, it asked you to edit yourself down. If you posted in ALLCAPS, we de-capitalized it (Flickr does this now). These are easy things for computers to do, and they make a huge difference.

  5. Empower the Community to Help

    If you think bad comments bug you, they bug the good commenters twice as much.

    Yes, you should be paying someone on staff to be the Community Manager. In addition, you can also enable the community to help. Give every post a “This is Bad” button. Then give the community manager a private page where they can see the comments with the most bad votes and take appropriate action.

    For bonus points, give each post a “This is Good” button, too, so they can also tell you about the good ones. Remember that your members are not the enemy: they want to help you keep the place clean, too.

  6. Link Stories to Comments

    The worst thing you can do is separate the “community section” away from your content. That creates a backchannel, where people feel safe being inappropriate because, why not? They’re at the kids table, anyway.

    So link stories to community conversations as closely as possible. This will give the conversation a central topic.

  7. Enable Private Communication

    The internet didn’t create the angry letter to the editor, but it definitely put it into overdrive. And that’s okay – sometimes people need to vent. Your job is to direct the venting.

    Some papers’ comments are so crazy because there’s no other way for the reader to respond. People will gladly communicate with you privately if you gave them a way to do so.

    So create a form people can use to email the editors, and link to it from the comment form. Say: “If you’d like to say this privately, go over here.” (Props to Vox, where there’s a “Send private message instead” link on every comment form.)

    You may get some angry email this way, but it’s better in your inbox than on the website where it will just start, or add to, a fight.

  8. Participate …

    Get your writers involved in the conversation. People chill out a lot when they know they’re being listened to by the writer (and they act out a lot more when they think no one’s listening). I know, writers can find this an onerous addition to their workload, and have probably already decided that they hate their comments. Too bad. This is part of journalism’s evolution, and you’re either on the boat or you’re not.

    One great way to get writers on board is to give them the ability to moderate comments on their own stories. They can do this on their blogs, they should be able to do it on their stories, too. (With supervision by the Community Manager, naturally.)

  9. … But Don’t Feed the Trolls

    Members participating with good intentions are generally pleased when the authority figures are participating. Unfortunately, that can also bring out the trolls – bad users who are playing a game called “suck up as much of your time as possible.”

    School your writers in the ways of online community. If someone is trying to get a rise out of you, don’t fight back, no matter how tempting. A good Community Manager can help train writers on how, and when, to join the fray.

  10. Give Up Control

    Newsrooms are top-down places, but the internet is not. Get used to the fact that people online won’t do things just because you told them to. In fact, the only thing you can absolutely count on is that something will happen that you didn’t expect. When it does, you’ll be defined by what you do next. Be ready to be surprised.

As you can see, embracing community tools on your site takes work. If you just turn on comments with open-ended tools and no oversight, of course the result won’t be pretty. That’s because you haven’t done the job of an editor – to lead by example, direct the conversation, and sculpt the results.

The real reason comments on newspaper sites suck isn’t that internet commenters suck, it’s that the editors aren’t doing their jobs. If more newspapers implemented these 10 things, I guarantee the quality of their comments would go up. And this is just the basic stuff, mostly unchanged since I wrote Design for Community seven years ago.

Imagine what we could do if we could get past the easy stuff.


PREVIOUSLY: This is Not a Comment

UPDATE: Just One Question for Jason Schultz: Does moderating comments on a website make the website owner more liable?

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.