The media comments box stays sealed

18 January 2006

After my last post on bloggers' misuse of the word 'conversation', Sean Coon - who wanted AdAge to put comments in with journalists' columns - responded with his reasons for wanting comments to be aired in public and a question of his own:

Why do you think the majority of the mainstream media have dragged their feet in opening their online columns to allow commenting? Simon [Dumenco]'s point about antiquated publishing systems might have something to do with it, but *i feel* that editorial departments, and possibly traditional 'writers' want no part of it.

There are lots of answers to this one. One point I'd like to make first though is that sections of the mainstream media or old media, whatever you want to call them, were quite quick to put discussion forums on their sites to allow people to comment and talk about stories and columns. They were not hugely successful for the most part, which came as a bit of a surprise to a lot of people in the industry.

One assumption that people outside the traditional publishers make is that journalists believe they write copy, which is edited to fit a page, consumed quietly and avidly by a hungry public that nods sagely in response before moving onto the next story. Even the most misguided hack knows otherwise. People comment on stories to themselves at the very least, talk to their friends, colleagues or neighbours about what they saw in the paper - whether it was arrant rubbish, news to them or quite interesting. Forums were meant to cater to that discussion and, theoretically had the spin-off benefit that the more that people hung around the site posting comments, the more ads they could see. Yet, the forums often turned out to be tumbleweed-strewn wildernesses despite the belief that participation should be strong.

Marshall McLuhan wrote about the participation in Understanding Media, published in 1964, just about the time that Douglas Engelbart built the first computer mouse and a year before Ted Nelson came up with the term hypertext (albeit 20 years after Vannevar Bush postulated the Memex). "The individual news item is very low in information, and requires completion or fill-in by the reader...we have discussed the press as a mosaic form successor to the book-form. The mosaic is the mode of the corporate or collective image and commands deep participation. This participation is communal rather than private, inclusive rather than exclusive."

On the one hand, you have bloggers who claim to now feel excluded from the modern press process. On the other, you have the journalists who differ in their opinions in whether they are being exclusive and what to do about it but, deep down, do not feel that much has changed in human nature. Blogging has brought a new mode of expression but it's questionable as to whether the medium has actually changed what people were doing before. Blogging lets people communicate their thoughts on what is in the news to a much wider circle. If your work colleagues or friends do not care all that much about events in Turkey covered today, you can post them on a blog and maybe find someone else who agrees or disagrees. Or just watch the webstats and find out that other people like to read about events in Turkey. In McLuhan's worldview, it marks a further extension of the human, but has it altered what people wanted to do in the first place or just given them a much more efficient way of distributing their thoughts than through a small circle of acquaintances.

But, amid this change, the news media have done nothing, absolutely nothing to stifle the debate. A quick check of Technorati's home page will generally reveal that the top stories and columns under discussion almost always derive directly from the mainstream media. In fact, there are so many places to go one has to question whether the media sites should try to kick-start comment threads on their own pages. If you look at the mags that have them, the comment threads are often lonelier places than external sites.

There are many possible reasons, and a number of them lie in the way that the media sites handle the user interface for comment threads and forums. The software packages are often incompatible with the content management systems used to post news stories, so you force people to jump, which puts them off. But some of the problem is, to my mind, structural. People want to be able to comment off-site so that they can own their part of the debate. Having the comment threads on-page often brings up questions of control and censorship - whatever happens, those threads will be moderated. Off-site, it's up to you.

I shouldn't ignore corporate inertia. Almost every company seems to have a different structure for mediating online and print products, and the IT that powers the website and production systems. A common conversation, no matter what the structure is, goes like this:

Editor - "We really need X for our site."

Person in charge of the infrastructure - "The public don't want X."

End of conversation.

I once worked in a place where the people in charge of the websites were ex-editorial but had IT responsibilities. The search function was badly messed up - to the point that we advised people to use the site-search option under Google rather than attempt to use the on-site search. Questions about why repairing the archive search was not a priority, or at least making it possible to put a Google button on the site as a competitor had done, were met with the bald response: "People don't use search for news." This was some time before Google News happened along, but I think even recent visitors from the planet Zarg might have been baffled by the response from the people in charge of running the website. The real answer was, of course, they knew it was messed-up but they did not know what to do about it, even though it was possible to come up with a business case as to why effective search was important to the site.

For adding something like comment threads to stories and columns, the business case is less clear. Editors, even if they think adding the threading software makes sense editorially, will find themselves beating their heads against a brick wall if the people in charge of the site software do not agree. And I think the business case for having comments on-page is so intangible that few would want to push it through - there are so many other things you can go after that could bring in more readers. Don't forget, each and every blog post brings in more traffic. By sending people away - albeit by default - traffic is still turning up at the door.

The issue then becomes the one of the feeling of exclusion that bloggers complain of. But do you need on-page comments from the writers, or simply a way of debating points with them? You can see that happening with a number of journalists already, using either blogs on the magazine sites or their own. More will follow if they see a benefit to the process. However, I think any sensible media organisation will do what it can to move where this market is headed rather than try to play catch-up with blogs as they are today. Second-generation intermediaries - the companies that follow Technorati - are likely to be able to bring together the sources of debate and the commenters more efficiently than is possible today.


i just left a local blog meetup where the conversation touched upon this very question.

making comments available on an article does one thing; it provides an option.

for non-bloggers (they are out there), it allows for instant, transparent feedback. for the blogger, it provides the option to drop a "quick comment." i might care enough to share my thoughts on an article, but have no desire to create a post about it (like now).

online journalism (non-blogs) is slowly shifting in this direction. wired added comments to their articles a few months back, and (very old school editorial process) is adding comments as we speak.

now, if online journalism wants real readership, they should allow for trackbacks (even like the newsweek/technorati relationship) and link out more liberally, joining the conversation and the blogging ecosystem.


More options are always better than fewer. But to convince people who aren't going to make the switch based on what they have seen already, they need a more compelling reason than it would be nice. If it can be demonstrated that certain online media sites are losing readers because they don't have comments, that would be compelling enough. But does anybody switch where they go for news just because of that?

We have seen a number of places embrace the Technorati-style trackback system. I don't see many embracing full-on trackbacks - the number of bloggers turning trackbacks off or simply not fixing broken implementations continues to rise, which is not something that will encourage media sites to use them.

And linking out: that happens in some cases and you will see more of it. And I believe the people who will be quickest to do it are those that pay attention to the various bits of information on readership they can find: from webstats to link references from outside. The rhetoric you will hear from media companies will be along the lines of "participating in the ecosystem; focusing resources on core material; providing more utility by making it easier for users to get the information they need." Some of that will be a return to the dreaded portal model; some of it will see those outlets with a focus get more attention. Whether it is small independents who get the most out of the change or more streamlined versions of the current incumbents is an open question.

Thanks for your comments.

well, here's a reason:

you see, if sites don't enable comments, then people will use other, more lasting ways to provide public feedback. a comment area is a decent way to capture praise and critique, without turning an issue or story into more than it is. take that away, or don't provide it at all, and people just might get primal.

thank you for the conversation.

People will comment anywhere, anyway - wasn't that my point? :-)

The issue of control over comments was something that I chopped from this post. It was getting too long and rambling and it didn't fit the flow. I've pasted it in here, although there is a long intro to the point you have to wade through:

'Editors, in general, like letters. They particularly like letters that are flattering, but will accommodate those that are not. The biggest problem with letters is getting enough of them on interesting subjects. When it comes to critical letters, there are two schools of thought on how you deal with them and you can see these patterns of behaviour reflected in blogs as well as 'old media' or however you want to call it. One is to give the reader the last word, unless there is a question in the letter that needs answering. The other is to respond with justifications for the stance taken in a story in the same issue. This is the less common stance and, in my opinion, wrong for the media. Bloggers might consider this to be a better approach because feedback to the original writer's feedback can appear quickly. On this blog, I've adopted the "reader speaks last" approach so far; that may change depending on circumstances. From looking at other blogs, there seem a good many that do not answer critics in comments or correct posts after factual errors have been pointed out, so the "reader speaks last" approach is not isolated to old media.

'The thing to bear in mind is that editors and writers like to have feedback: it demonstrates that people actually read the material and did not just turn one more page to find something else. Page-load statistics are all very well, but they only tell you that the browser loaded that page, not whether any of it was read. How the closely article was read, you can determine from the content of the feedback. It does not take long to develop a feel for what generates comment and what does not.

'The problem with online comments is what to do about control. Too much control and the comment traffic plummets; too little and the site is splattered with spam. This is where the practical considerations start to crop up. Spam is just one problem. What do you do about abusive, libelous posts? Every journalist gets trained on media law at some point or other. A libel on the letters page lands a paper in as much trouble as a libel on the news page; courts do not treat a comments section on a news site any differently.

'Why is this important? Because there will be a community of bloggers who will see any attempt by media sites to vet comments as an sign of old media habits. "They need to control; they cannot accept the Wisdom of the Crowd," they will wail.'

I'm not on a newspaper like that so it's easy for me to argue what they should have done. As the comments facility was already there, they should have left all the comments there, especially the offensive ones. The partisans on the GOP side would then have at it over how illiberal the liberals were etc etc. Pretty soon, the original problem (Howell's Sunday column) would be lost.

However, there is an argument against that. I would imagine that the WaPo has a sizeable audience that has heard a bit about blogs but has no truck with them but likes to read some of the paper online. These are exactly the people who will write emails complaining about bad language appearing on their favourite paper and demanding to know why such uncouth behaviour is now part of the paper. "Welcome aboard Mr Brady. On the left we have the Rock, and if you look over on the right, we have the Hard Place. Please prepare yourself for a bumpy ride."

Why set yourself up for that (and explain it to your management when they ask why that great comment idea has exploded in your face)? However, I have to admit, not having public comments at all for the paper's ombudswoman does sound like a poor idea.