In 1690, Benjamin Harris edited a paper that only lasted for one issue before it was shut down by the colonial authorities. Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick filled only three of its four pages so that readers could write their comments and share the paper with another reader, creating a written discussion of the paper’s stories. Miami University journalism instructor, David Wells, uses this anecdote to explain how social networking is not a new phenomenon. He asserts that each technological advance in journalism from moving type to the iPhone serves to “get the news out faster and it’s made it possible to reach a wider audience. The wider the audience and the faster you get it out there the more interaction occurs with it.”
If you write in or manage an online space these days, chances are reader comments are either the bane of your existences or a boost to your traffic. Or maybe a bit of both. While readers discussing your writing can help the story grow or the piece go viral, managing online traffic and comments can prove difficult.
Managing Online Comments
Wells was the Editorial Page editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1999-2009, a period when many newspapers started to make the transition to the online platforms. In the transition, the paper focused on creating a “community conversation” and decided that historically the Editorial pages were where that had happened via letters to the editor. The team decided to publish letters to the editor online. As with the traditional print-based letters to the editor, the online letter to the editor page required people to include their real names and which neighborhood of the city they were from. Some people at the paper thought the requirement would deter submissions, but the paper received up to 100 letters a day, showing that people were as willing to include their names in the online forum as they were in the printed paper. Wells argues, “If people were going to put their names on it they’re going to be more responsible about it than they would be otherwise. And people do want to have their voice and speak up and they’re glad to have the forum.”
Monitoring the online comments to other stories proved more complicated. Not only were there far more comments to comb through, but with the ability to post anonymously, people would write such hateful things that some local public figures started to decline being interviewed by the paper. To Wells, the anonymity of online comments is linked to the likelihood that people will post inflammatory or untrue statements. “I think the anonymity of the comment is a bad thing,” he says. “The excuse is always that people will get in trouble because the boss will find out they differ in political views. You know what, people need to be responsible for what they say. There is such a thing as free speech and the boss isn’t supposed to be able to fire you.”
Many publications share Wells’s views and many, such as the HuffingtonPost, are starting to require the use of Facebook accounts to post online comments. Further, a recent study published in Journalism Practice found that there was a direct correlation between anonymity and “uncivil” comments. Specifically, when online newspapers allowed readers to make anonymous comments, 53% of the comments made were uncivil or inflammatory. That rate dropped to 29% when the user interface required the reader’s real name or a link to their Facebook account.
Crowd-Sourcing and Engaging Reader Response
Wells notes, however, that when flagging and removing offensive comments, it is still important to listen to the questions and the input of the readers. He recounts going into meetings and asking, “This story that the police reporter wrote got 150 comments. Did you read any of those comments? There are a couple of comments in here that are pretty interesting that suggest this is similar to some other crime. Have we checked that out? That’s a tip.” Reporters would tell him they didn’t have time to read all the comments and Wells would reply, “You don’t have time not to.” He asserts that reader comments provide a space for crowd sourcing to help a story develop: “You will find out new information which you should turn around and use to enrich your own reporting, just like if you heard it as a tip over at the police station.”
Drawing In Readers
Wells points out another way that reader interaction and digital readership is affecting writing: the pay wall. In an effort to counter financial losses after content moved from print to online, many publications have instituted a pay wall, allowing the reader to only read a portion of the story, or a limited number of stories before requiring a paid subscription. According to Wells, the pay wall can put the writer in a tricky situation. “What’s your role as a journalist?” he asks. “Is it just to provide teasers to get someone to buy a subscription so they can read your whole story?” Wells, like many instructors, teaches his students to get the news up top so that “if you just read the lead you should get the gist of what the story’s about.”
Tips for Web Writers
What does this dynamic mean for web writers? Careful management of online comments, flagging inappropriate or libelous comments is important, but listening to readers’ points also matters. Further, as more online publications move to draw readers into stories through sensationalist headlines or building a pay-walls, there are important decisions to be made about the integrity of your writing and how you are addressing your audience.
Know what your approach to reader interaction and user comments will be and communicate this vision to stakeholders. How will you set the tone without censoring your audience? How will you draw readers in without sacrificing the quality of your writing?