Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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“News thrives when it lives amid a conversation”: WSJ experiments to create a vibrant community around its content

The comments section can serve as a powerful engagement and community building tool. But the high levels of toxicity and the sheer volume of commenting have forced many publishers to switch it off altogether.

It just takes too much time and effort to moderate comments which is hard on publishers already strapped for resources. But by abandoning it altogether, they are also losing out on the benefits that a vibrant comments sections can bring.

News thrives when it lives amid a conversation between journalists and the public, and amid conversations among readers themselves.

Matt Murray, Editor in Chief, The Wall Street Journal

But now that more publishers are focusing on generating direct reader revenue, they are also trying to find ways to make their comments sections more effective.

“Help strengthen loyalty and frequency”

Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter currently has 165,000 digital and 163,000 print subscribers. It has been growing 40% on a year-to-year basis since 2015 and has managed to reduce churn from 15% to 8% in the last two years.

The publisher which had earlier shut its comments section for conversations on Facebook restarted it at the end of 2017. According to its Head of Editorial Development, Martin Jönsson, comments “help strengthen loyalty and frequency. The most common churn driver is lack of frequency in visits.”

The publisher receives around 25,000 comments a month from subscribers. It plans to focus on improving the quality of commenting so that readers find value in reading them and sharing their thoughts.

That’s something The Wall Street Journal has been pursuing aggressively. The publisher conducted in-depth research to understand how they could invite more readers and encourage healthy commenting around their content.

We looked at ourselves and asked what we were doing about it. Were we providing a forum for thoughtful conversation? Were we providing an experience that interested most of our audience? Were we leading by example?

Louise Story, Editor of Newsroom Strategy at The Wall Street Journal

The study took place over a period of 5 months and involved people from different functions including product, design, technology, community, customer service, and reporters. Based on the findings, the Journal overhauled the way it manages comments.

Here are the key changes:

  • Comments have been relabeled as “conversations” to indicate an environment where readers are welcome to share their thoughts.
  • Only select (around 30) news stories and opinion pieces are open for audience commenting for a limited time. They are clearly marked as being open for conversation.
  • Conversations begin with question prompts from reporters. They will also occasionally engage directly with readers.
  • Only paying readers can join these conversations.
  • Meaningful comments are highlighted.
  • The project is managed by an Audience Voices & Community newsroom team with an editor, reporters, and multimedia producers.

“It is better when we include the audience”

The strategy appears to be working. According to Digiday, the publisher claims that a higher number of subscribers from a broader demographic (younger and more female readers) are now reading and writing comments. The number of people reading comments has increased by 5% and those posting, liking or replying has gone up more than 5%.

The quality of the commenting has also improved. That could be because the publisher highlights meaningful comments and even shares them on social media and newsletters.

Story told Digiday, “That carrot increases the quality. We’re feeding this back into reporting. It is better when we include the audience. Stories that are more interesting and relevant to journalists mean the audience is also more invested and more likely to stay.”

A better-managed comments section can also help inform and shape future story ideas. Story writes, “We could use our resources better if we picked articles each day for audience conversation, listed them openly for the audience to find and had our moderators spend more time finding great comments and story leads and bringing those into our journalism.”

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