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Five lessons on managing online comments

World News Publishing Focus

World News Publishing Focus
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Five lessons on managing online comments

"There is an opportunity for tremendous conversation in online comments, but we won't achieve that if readers are not rewarded for valuable contributions," said Greg Barber, Director of Digital News Projects at the Washington Post and head of strategy and partnerships at Coral Project, the joint initiative between Mozilla, The New York Times and Washington Post initiative to help communities work better online. Together with World Editors Forum consultant Federica Cherubini, he led a workshop on online content moderation at the annual World News Media Congress in Cartagena, Colombia.

An open discussion, including editors from South Africa, Argentina, Kenya, Germany, Denmark, Qatar, Switzerland, the US and India, surfaced the following points:

1. A healthy online community can help increase audience engagement 

Lisa MacLeod, Head of Digital at Times Media in South-Africa stressed that particular communities, like the one that gathers around economic and financial issues, when properly moderated can be particularly effective and powerful. Comments, from high calibre contributors can sometimes be better than the articles themselves.

2. Carefully selected topics can bring readers closer to reporters and inform future coverage

Suddeutsche Zeitung now runs moderated commenting on three to five topics a day. All other articles are closed. This allows careful moderation. Editor-in-Chief Wolfgang Krach said: "We're convinced it is worth doing because it helps build a very strong, close connection to our readers." To encourage further interaction with readers, the newsroom has introduced a new online format called "The Story" which asks readers to propose ideas for articles. Readers then vote on which issues should be investigated by the paper's reporters.

3. Closing the comments section affects engagement, not traffic

Andrew Trench, Digital Editor at the Times Media, former Editor-in-Chief of News24 said he found no business case for moderating comments. "Shutting comments down would almost have no impact on engagement metrics,” he said, speaking from his experience as the Editor-in-Chief of News24. The South-African online publication had around 180,000 comments on the news page side, with only a minuscule portion of the audience -3,000 users- driving those comments. When they shut it down, the average time spent on the site went down by one second, but the impact was very low. 

4. Shutting down online comments may harm a publisher's reputation

While shutting down the comments section didn't affect News24 engagement, it was a major problem from the brand's point of view in terms of reputation and litigations. Shutting down the comment basically means moving it from the publishers own website to social media, if they weren't there already. On these platforms, publishers cannot prevent people from trolling. 

5. Manpower is an issue in online comment moderation

There is a general concern among publishers about the time dedicated to content moderation. "Do we hire force to deal with comments or do we simply block them out?” said David Ohito, Digital Editor of The Standard Group in Kenya, whose publication really struggles to moderate their comments. They are full of hatred and are often used to threaten their journalists, according to him, but he also recognises the chance for readers to participate and resonate with content, for the audience lead, provide tips, propose other angles and all of that is critical in agenda-setting, he said. 

Author

Ingrid Cobben

Date

2016-07-04 15:51

Author information

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