Ending reader comments is a mistake, even if you are Reuters

Anyone who has followed our coverage of online media probably knows that I am in favor of media entities giving their readers the option to comment — even though comment sections are often filled with trolls, flame wars and spam. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I think Reuters is making a mistake by removing the option to comment from its news articles. Even though Reuters is a newswire service with mostly corporate clients, I think the reasoning behind its decision is flawed.

In a post about the decision, Reuters Digital executive editor Dan Colarusso describes it as a necessary evolution, brought about by changes in reader behavior. In other words, he argues that the Reuters website doesn’t really need to have comments on its news articles any more because people are commenting elsewhere — primarily Twitter and Facebook:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Much of the well-informed and articulate discussion around news, as well as criticism or praise for stories, has moved to social media and online forums. Those communities offer vibrant conversation and, importantly, are self-policed by participants to keep on the fringes those who would abuse the privilege of commenting.”[/blockquote]

Colarusso is describing two factors here, which are related but still distinct: on the one hand, conversation has moved to social-media platforms — something no one would argue with, and certainly not me. We’ve noticed it at Gigaom, just like every other media outlet: more and more readers are discussing our content on Twitter and Facebook, or on their own blogs. But is that enough justification for giving up comments? I don’t think so.

Handing value to Facebook

The second point Colarusso is making is that social platforms are “self-policed” and therefore are less susceptible to abuse. I’m not sure everyone would agree with that statement, however — Twitter in particular often gets criticized for the level of flaming and abuse that occurs there, and Facebook is not immune either. It may be less visible because it doesn’t happen right next to your content, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening at all.

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What I think Colarusso really means is that moderation or policing of behavior no longer becomes Reuters’ problem, and therefore the company doesn’t have to spend the money to hire moderators. This is why other sites like Popular Science have also done away with comments, and it was one of the most common defenses given for the Reuters decision during a Twitter debate I engaged in after the announcement.

As I tried to point out, what Reuters is really doing is two-fold: it is effectively offloading the cost of moderation to its writers — who will now be responding on Twitter and Facebook either on their own time or during work hours or both — and it is handing over much of the value of that engagement with readers to Twitter and Facebook and other social platforms.

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The bottom line is that if the discussion and debate and interaction around a news story occurs somewhere else, then soon the readers who are interested in that engagement will start to think of the platform where it occurs as the important part of the relationship — not the site that actually created the content. Facebook is more or less counting on that to happen, which is why it wanted to get news publishers and other sites to implement its commenting tools in the first place.

Providing value for readers

It’s true that Reuters is primarily a commercial news-wire service, and so its primary customers are not individual readers but corporations that subscribe to its service. And yet, the company clearly wants to have a consumer presence of some kind, or it wouldn’t be launching things like a customized video offering for news consumers, which it announced on Tuesday.

Many people complain about comment sections, but in my experience just as many either secretly or not-so-secretly enjoy the back-and-forth of reader discussion, even if it does get out of hand sometimes. And one of the most important aspects of comments isn’t just that it gives those who comment a place to put their remarks — it’s that it allows other readers who may never comment to see those discussions taking place, and hopefully see journalists responding to those comments.

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This is another key flaw in allowing social platforms to take over the discussion around your content: not everyone is on Twitter, and not everyone is on Facebook, and so any conversation or interaction that occurs there will be invisible to many — and even for those who are on these platforms, the discussion might get lost amid the never-ending stream of content that flows by every day. Why would you force them to go looking for the discussion around your content instead of showing it to them?

Giving away the keys

I’ve argued before that interacting with a community of readers — the people formerly known as the audience — isn’t just a luxury in today’s environment, it’s a necessity. And that’s the case for Reuters too, since its dominance as a news entity is declining rapidly, even with corporate users.

Is moderation a pain, and an expensive proposition? Sure it is. Lots of things that matter to your business are expensive. And if you have an engaged community, they can become your moderators, as successful online communities like Slashdot and Metafilter have shown — which in turn helps strengthen your community. Ending comments means removing any chance that this will ever happen.

Facebook and Twitter and other platforms are tools you can use, and should use, but they don’t have your best interests at heart — your content and the engagement it generates are just a way for them to produce advertising revenue. For you, those relationships are the key to whatever monetization opportunities you might have, whether it’s real-world events or subscription products. Why would you choose to hand over the keys to that kingdom to someone else?

Images: Keyboard via Pond5