With layoffs, bankruptcies, and fire sales emanating from the digital publishing industry on an almost daily basis, there’s constant debate about whether online media outlets deserve the blame for being out-maneuvered by the tech platforms that destroyed their business models. The industry’s harshest critics argue that, at almost every turn, publishers ceded power to the Facebooks, Googles, and Craigslists of the world. These derelict publishers failed to innovate, gave their content away for free, and then placated themselves with voodoo economics and easy VC cash.
I tend to take a more charitable view of how publishers behaved over the past decade. When Facebook opened the floodgates and sent hordes of readers to news websites, it only made sense for those same outlets to double down on the social platform. With nearly all intentional video viewing taking place on YouTube, aspiring filmmakers were justified in building their audiences there instead of hosting video on their own websites. Most criticisms lodged against the content creators that chose to work with the platforms are made with the benefit of hindsight.
But I think there’s at least one area in which hundreds of publishers unnecessarily weakened their position in the marketplace and drove power directly to the major tech platforms. When it comes to unforced errors, the decision many publishers made to close down their comment sections should be considered one of the industry’s worst blunders.
During print media’s halcyon days, the letters to the editor section, found in both local and national newspapers, was often the first page readers opened to when drinking their morning coffee. Carefully curated by the editorial team, the letters were the filter through which the community could comment on news stories, broadcast their opinions, and even criticize the newspaper’s coverage.
And in the early 2000s, when many newspapers migrated online, there was genuine enthusiasm for what this meant for reader participation. Suddenly, not only did the letters to the editor now have limitless capacity, but readers could join the conversation right on the article itself, in some ways acting as an extension of the reporting and discussion.
That was the idea, anyway. In reality, editors looked down into their article comments sections and did not like what they saw: community members hiding behind the protection of anonymity to launch attacks, racism, and non sequiturs. As more and more readers came online, the problem only became worse. Most publications held their comments sections at arm’s length, placing disclaimer messages at the top and leaving readers to argue among themselves.
And then, starting earlier this decade, publishers began shuttering their comments sections. NPR. Popular Science. Reuters. The Atlantic. CNN. ESPN. The list goes on. Nearly all cited the toxicity of comments sections and their lack of resources to moderate them. “Too often they devolve into racist, misogynistic maelstroms where the loudest, most offensive, and stupidest opinions get pushed to the top and the more reasoned responses drowned out in the noise,” wrote Vice editor-in-chief Jonathan Smith on his decision to close down the comments. “Robust conversation in The Atlantic comments section has too often been hijacked by people who traffic in snark and ad hominem attacks and even racism, misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish invective,” wrote The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.
What’s more, these editors, when announcing the closings, actively encouraged their readers to move the discussion to social media. “Those [social media] communities offer vibrant conversation and, importantly, are self-policed by participants to keep on the fringes those who would abuse the privilege of commenting,” wrote Dan Colarusso when announcing Reuters was shutterings its comments section. “We decided to leave the debate to the social media,” said John Arne Markussen, editor in chief at Dagbladet.
Flash forward to 2019, and nearly all discussion around current events and news is occurring on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. As someone who regularly commented on blog posts and magazine message boards in the early-to-mid aughts, I witnessed firsthand the opportunities that these publications squandered. With media executives now calling on the U.S. government to allow publishers to collectively bargain against major platforms like Facebook and Google, it’s worth asking why those same publishers voluntarily handed over so much leverage to begin with.
Did comments sections invite trollish behavior? Yes. Did moderating that behavior require both editorial and technical resources? Also yes. But deploying these resources was worth the cost, as it would have resulted in publishers maintaining a stronger relationship with their readerships. Instead, much of the news media became commoditized, with news outlets placing more emphasis on drive-by Facebook traffic than serving loyal readers. In pursuing this strategy, publishers placed more distance between themselves and their users, and so they were ill-equipped when digital advertising models collapsed and platforms like Facebook siphoned off their traffic.
Don’t believe me? Just look at the publishers that didn’t abandon their comments sections.
Let’s start with The New York Times, which just announced it reached a previously-unheard-of 3.5 million digital subscribers and is one of the rare media companies that keeps beating revenue expectations. The Times has long prioritized reader loyalty over short-term traffic gains, and it’s continued to double down on reader comments.
The Grey Lady employs about a dozen moderators whose sole job it is to sift through the 12,000 comments left on its articles every day. This team chooses which articles should be opened to reader comments, settling on stories that meet well-defined criteria:
When making that call, they take into account an article’s news value and the likelihood it will generate thought-provoking reactions — and the potential for comments that will guide reporters on other possible story ideas. “We’ll try to pick stories where the comments are really going to teach you something,” said [community editor Bassey Etim].
The New York Times has invested in machine learning to help increase the efficiency of moderating comments. “The system allows moderators to open 80 percent of articles to comments, up from 10 percent,” reported Kat Long in a 2017 article about the moderation team.
With more and more publishers launching paid subscription models, many are offering up commenting privileges as a subscription benefit. Subscribing to The Athletic, a subscription-funded sports news company that has launched verticals in dozens of cities, grants you access to the site’s comments section.
A friend of mine who subscribes to the Philadelphia vertical recently told me that the quality of the reader discussion is much higher than what he sees on free sites. “If you’re following a specific team, you’ll see the same commenters over and over,” he told me. “It’s a small community. Everybody is pretty considerate. The community will push out bad actors.” My friend theorized that, because commenters were paying for the product, they had more incentive to keep the quality of discussion high. Also, because subscribers are associated with their credit cards, it’s much easier for moderators to ban bad actors.
Increasingly, moderating high volumes of reader comments has become a technical challenge, and a number of startups have come onto the market to help publishers on that front. Spot.IM, a community commenting platform that publishers can install on their websites, recently raised a Series D round of $25 million, and it’s seen adoption from some of the world’s largest digital media outlets, including News Corp, Verizon Media Group, Meredith, and CBS.
Spot.IM not only utilizes machine learning algorithms to help publishers moderate comments, but it also offers up a number of other functionalities that increase reader engagement, including single sign-on, notifications, email digests, and even topic pages that allow readers to launch their own discussions that aren’t tied to a specific article. Spot.IM CEO Nadav Shoval recently told me that readers that take the time to set up an account on the platform generate five times the revenue compared to readers who don’t register. “Once a user engages with our platform on the publisher website, they will most probably come more often to the website, stay longer on the website, be exposed to more content, to more ads,” he said. “It’s a combination of more time on site, more pageviews, more attention.”
Let’s be clear: even the publishers with the best comment moderation still only see a small percentage of their readers convert into on-site commenters. But let’s say only 5 percent of your readers choose to register and comment; those readers will punch far above their weight in terms of driving traffic and revenue to your site. Those are your chief evangelists, your repeat customers, your paying subscribers.
To understand how a small percentage of a publisher’s most loyal users can drive revenue growth, consider The New York Times. Currently, its digital subscribers only account for 3.6 percent of the newspaper’s monthly online audience, and yet that 3.6 percent drove over $400 million in subscription revenue in 2018. When you’re dealing with the scale of the internet, catering to your most engaged readers is worth the investment.