The Lost Art of Comments in Local News

I took a trip down memory lane this  morning as I was browsing through old posts on Catonsville Patch to add to my Pressfolio.

I spent two years living and breathing all things Catonsville before I took a more regional strategic role at Patch. What I probably miss most about the job was engaging with readers in the comments. Any of the hundreds of local Patch editors (most of whom have been laid off in the past six months) will tell you how lively and maddening the comments section on a story could be.

We’ve seen those crazy threads before on a national news story about a controversial topic (gay marriage, the debt crisis, or some other polarizing issue), or even stalked an out-of-control comment thread on a Facebook page.

Comments online are a blessing and a curse. But in local community news I think they are more of a blessing, as there is a good chance at least some of the people leaving comments actually know each other.

At Patch editors were encouraged to comment on stories, especially when readers asked questions or to provide updates to a story. We found generally this best practice yielded more comments, although sometimes it would invite personal attacks on editors.

Why should editors and reporters dive into comment threads?

A few case studies:

In Catonsville, the community had a quirky tradition of leaving out chairs to save space for the annual Fourth of July parade up to two weeks ahead of time. As innocent as the tradition was, there were many people who found the practice selfish, while others championed the act.

I cover the topic extensively with an article when the first chairs were out, photo galleries of the chairs and other interesting aspects of this tradition.

Here’s an example of a post I did that was meant to drive discussion, and boy did it ever. ¬†Every time I wrote about the issue readers would leave dozens of comments, so it could be overwhelming at times to dive in.

Here’s the approach I took:

1. If it’s getting too negative, try to steer the conversation in a positive way by sharing relevant information that spurs people to action:

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2. If readers are quoting inaccurate statistics or making false claims, offer clarification when relevant:

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3. Ask readers a question to get more information for a follow-up post:

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Now for many journalists out there, the act of even commenting can feel uncomfortable. There were plenty of editors at Patch not comfortable with this practice, or others who took it too far in the opposite direction and got into spats with folks in the comments thread.

Why even bother diving in? How does improve the reputation of the journalist or the site? Here are a few reasons:

1.Reporters and editors commenting shows that someone is watching. Some of the worst threads I’ve seen are usually absent of any voice of authority diving in. Usually half of the comments after a while will say something like ‘if [insert name of media publication] is even reading this].’ By dispelling rumors in the the thread, adding insight and facts, reporters are doing what they do best: sharing facts and providing contest.

2. Online news platforms allow us to get direct feedback from readers in a way that print never did. But yet when you think about the way newsrooms were back in the days before there was online, there was still the expectation that phone calls with readers were returned and letters to the editors were published. If someone showed up in the office demanding to speak with the publisher, usually they would see someone. I remember those ‘types’ from my newsrooom days. There is always that one curmudgeonly reader who would call and leaving rambling voicemails on reporters’ phone every week. While we may not have returned every phone call, the expectation from a customer service perspective was we usually had to call the person back at least once.

But not all online discussions are as innocent and polite as the topic of chairs left out ahead of the Fourth of July parade. If only it were that easy, right?

With 900 sites across the country, Patch had its shared of crazy comment threads. Like, in the hundreds. Our team (the Community Engagement team) was often tasked in the last year of advising editors how to respond. Here are few approaches we took:

1. If someone is diving into the comments of a story to be contrary or nasty, feel free to take a stand. Especially on stories where you know someone else is probably reading that and thinking, ‘how rude.’ This comment came on a story¬†featuring a high school senior who was looking to start a political career. The first comment made was a reader attacking the politicians of the town.

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2. If you need to delete something, be clear that you did and why (linking to TOS if you have it). Leave your contact information and thank readers for commenting. Again, this makes the moderation happen in a transparent way for readers. If you delete comments on a thread without any reason, readers will start spouting all sorts of conspiracy theories as to why.

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3. If you are personally attacked, feel free to address it, and be transparent about any conversations you may have had with the source or your intentions with the article. Readers will appreciate your acknowledgement of it in a professional way.

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While it may take extra effort to spend time moderating these comments or to compose your responses, you can also keep a list of ‘canned responses’ to adapt for different types of comments you see all the time. When it comes to community news, you can’t hide behind the site when you’ll likely see your readers at the coffee shop!

It’s been a while since I’ve seen an engaging comments section on a local news post that wasn’t Patch (if I’ve missed something, feel free to share!), but I’ve always enjoyed reading (Baltimore native) Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Atlantic.

Here’s an audio interview with him about how to create a good comment section (credit On the Media). His strategy: treating it as a dinner party where he is the host. If you threaten one of his guests, he will ask you to leave.