Five reasons why Gakwer is 100% dead wrong about comments on newspapers

by Jason Preston on July 22, 2008

Over at Gawker, Sheila M has somehow arrived at the idea that newspapers should give up on comments and just eliminate them from their web sites.

This one of the dumber things I’ve heard from a Gawker media property, and here’s why:

1. Misconceptions

“However, newspapers have been in the toilet lately, partly due to the proliferation of blogs. One easy pseudo-solution some newspapers have settled on is to act more and more like blogs.”

Newspapers are not int he toilet because of the proliferation of blogs. Blogs are not replacing newspaper reporting and analysis—people are not reading blogs instead of newspapers.

Newspapers are in the toilet because people are reading them for free and the internet has killed reader engagement and newspaper ad monopoly.

While in some cases “acting more like blogs” would be a bad thing (forget fact checking, sources, copyright issues), allowing comments is not one of those.

2. More misconceptions

“(Thanks for writing; your check is in the mail, and oh—have fun getting senselessly torn apart in the comments. No, there’s nothing we can do about it—it’s 2.0!)”

“Web 2.0” does not mean unfettered comment sections any more than it means rounded corners or products perpetually in beta. Nor does blogging mean keeping a personal cat journal. Nor does journalism mean betraying every secret you possibly can. You see a pattern here?

What web 2.0 is about is community, and comments are one of the more powerful community tools in existence. I’ve seen clients turn bad situations in to good situations by simply getting into a conversation with their users—which means getting your hands dirty and being in there.

Most newspaper comment sections are such crap because newspapers are afraid to moderate them and I know that at least some papers won’t let their reporters respond to comments. It’s a bit like calling up your neighbor’s teenage children to tell them you’ve got a few kegs in the house and here’s the keys, can they keep an eye on them for a few weeks while we head off to Hawaii? We’ll send pictures!

You want your house to stay nice? Stick around town.

3. Free money

“You could argue that newspapers should rigorously vet and moderate their comments, or at least require them to use their full names. I’d argue that this is a silly misuse of their time”

It’s not a waste of time. Forums are still, architecturally, the kind of site that generates the most page views. Page views are money.

Comments = money.

Newspapers need that. And well moderated forums do better than abandoned forums. Like all communities, those that form around real world geography and newspaper brands need care and feeding.

4. The future is about community

Some newspapers have embraced the concept more fully than others, but the future of online publishing platforms is inextricably tied to “community.” I guess a good way to think about it is that these web sites are a bit like corporations with millions of stockholders.

Truly web 2.0 properties—the sites that are flourishing and that newspapers would do well to learn a few lessons from—are beholden to their readers in ways that no publishing company has been in the past.

Just look at the recent BoingBoing “unpublishing” controversy, or the way that Digg responded to the DVD encryption key being posted all over its site (they decided to ignore takedown notices and stick by their users).

This is a scary thought, but when readers have no real lock-in (every other newspaper is literally just a click away), you have to find another way to secure their loyalty, and the nature of the internet makes it virtually impossible to force people to read your paper.

Instead, (imagine this) newspapers will actually have to use the carrot (not the stick) to encourage reading habits and develop brand loyalty. Machiavelli is out. John Lennon is in.

5. Read the comments

Read the comments on the Gawker post calling for the death of newspaper comments. They ain’t all brilliant, but some of them are better than the original post.

I rest my case.

{ 3 trackbacks }

Newspaper comments continued: Thoughts about this week’s On The Media — Eat Sleep Publish
07.28.08 at 4:53 pm
Comments of the moment: use the carrot to encourage good comments — Eat Sleep Publish
07.29.08 at 2:17 pm
Blogs, sólo un canal « Horacio Garay
11.06.08 at 8:58 am

{ 3 comments }

1 Ben A 07.22.08 at 10:31 am

At the same time, it’s a pet peeve of mine when newspapers put a “What do you think?” section asking for readers comments above the fold. I’d like either a piece of journalism on the newspaper or a scientifically conducted poll. A platform for people to rant isn’t news.

I’m all about having comments sections attached to articles. I’m just not a fan of the standalone soapboxy headlines like “Can Barack Obama really win the election?” (recently on BBC’s site). It’s of little journalistic value to have uninformed “readers” spouting things like “Hell no! White folks would never let it happen!” while the Iowa primary results sit farther down the page.

2 Jason Preston 07.23.08 at 6:39 pm

Sure, I’m not suggesting that the comments be the content that the newspapers provide.

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