Engage. Listen to your readers. Build a community.
All good advice coming in newspapers' direction. But when it comes to responding to comments on their websites, disappointingly few are putting it into practice.
The Washington Post is one of the exceptions. Nieman Lab recently reported that the paper is encouraging its reporters to take part in the conversation on its website. In addition to the six people dedicated to comments full-time, over 40 reporters have contributed to the comment threads over recent weeks, Joe DeNunzio, the Post's interactivity editor, wrote in a blog post.
"The interactivity team here started taking a more active approach to getting reporters into the comments late last year because we were pretty sure it could help the comment threads - and the journalism," DeNunzio told Nieman. Based on the evidence so far, it appears that this is exactly what has happened.
The Nieman article highlights some examples of how reporters' presence successfully fended off speculation and hateful messages based on misinformation. Moreover, in some cases, the journalists have been able to tap into an active comments stream and bring in a researcher to join the discussion, turning the comments into a natural extension to the original article.
This could set an interesting precedent - when you anticipate a strong reaction from readers, it makes sense to prepare for it by having experts to answer their questions online.
Not only did the newspaper's journalism benefit, but the experience has also provided evidence for something that many people have suspected for some time: having the newspapers' staff showing up in comments, and exemplifying the kind of behaviour they would like to see from their readers, has a positive effect on the quality of the conversation. The Nieman piece noted that the Post has also taken other steps to improve the level of its online comments by, for example, rewarding high-quality commenters with badges more frequently and banning the trolls more aggressively.
A way to civilise an unruly bunch?
This method of fostering civilised debate would seem to bypass a question that online news outlets have been mulling over for some time: does barring anonymous commenting increase the overall quality of online forums? The argument is that if people know that their messages are published under their own name, they think twice about what they publish. With this in mind, some sites have turned to Facebook Connect for their comments, effectively linking readers' comments with their Facebook accounts.
Interestingly, this view is now contested by findings of Disqus. According to the online commenting service, commenters using pseudonyms are "the most important contributors to online communities", Poynter reported.
In the light of the Post's success, it seems that encouraging newspaper staff to participate in commenting improves the quality and keeps trolls away. As the Nieman article noted, the tone of the discussion softens up a lot when reporters get involved.
Although still a rare practice, the Washington Post is by no means the only newspaper that takes an active approach to its comments streams. The staff of the Guardian, for example, participates in the conversations on its site, and the publication has issued clear guidelines for its journalists' blogging and commenting activities. Like the Post, comments from Guardian journalists are highlighted with a badge.
Of course, the time reporters spend interacting with their readers is time away from writing news articles or pursuing other stories. But at a time when journalists' direct relationship with their audience is becoming more and more crucial, this is arguably hardly a wasted investment.
On a lighter note, FishbowlNY reported that Gizmodo banned its own editor from commenting on the site, after he had insulted other commenters...