The Future of Comment Sections: Moderated and Annotated?
May 29, 2014

The virtual grab bag of human emotion that populates space at the bottom of content across the Internet — in many cases, unmoderated and anonymous — has become a relic of the past for some news organizations.

Various publications fed up with the vulgar and aggressive language spilling across their sites are devising new ways to improve the conversations under the content they post. Some have built more focused areas for users to post opinions, such as offering “annotations” for readers, as opposed to free-wheeling, open-ended, end-of-article debates. Others, such as USA TODAY’s sports news site For The Win, have shut down the comments section altogether, instead pursuing a strategy that encourages sharing on social media.

“The commenting on our site was mostly people stopping by and getting worked up about something,” said Jamie Mottram, content director for the USA TODAY Sports Media Group. “And leaving a comment was not part of the conversation – it was just them shouting at a wall.”

Still, there remains a passionate group of editors and publishers who believe in the power of on-site reader engagement. AJR spoke with Quartz, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and The Washington Post about the value of comments, and the essentials for maintaining a worthwhile comment section.

Follow AJR on Twitter: @AmJourReview

1. “Thoughtful implementation”

There is some evidence that sites are no longer viewing the comments section as a requirement. Some editors said they instead are taking more time to create better options for users to engage with news content.

Quartz, the Atlantic Media website covering business and the global economy, launched in 2012 without any comment system at all.

It had a specific plan for annotations instead of traditional comments, but “needed time to build it,” according to senior editor Zach Seward. “And we thought it wasn’t worth just doing comments for comments’ sake, or just slapping them on at the bottom of the story.”

In August, Quartz developed its annotation system, giving readers the ability to comment on specific aspects of a story in the margins.

As Seward explained, “Instead of letting people comment on an entire article at the bottom of a story, we allow our readers to leave a comment on the level of an individual paragraph.”

From the Archives: “Why News Sites Shouldn’t Allow Anonymous Comments”

It’s still unclear whether this approach will catch on with users. At this point, many Quartz stories have no annotations at all. Even many of those with annotations have a small number.

Seward said “the raw number is essentially irrelevant…I think we’re all familiar with coming to an article that has a thousand comments on it, and not really knowing where to start. Obviously you’re never going to go through that.”

Vox, a general interest news site that launched in April, has taken a similar wait-and-see approach to comments. The the site doesn’t maintain a comment section because editors are waiting to implement a system that will work specifically for their users.

“We’re still figuring out what approach to take,” executive editor Melissa Bell wrote in a recent post. Bell was unavailable to comment on Vox’s strategy going forward, but she wrote that the site will likely need a full-time staff person – or more – to build a true community.

2. Moderation

Vox’s need for additional staff brings up an essential point — the most engaging, active comment sections require frequent moderation.

At BuzzFeed, where there is a “strict policy against any kind of hate speech or personal attacks,” one editor moderates the comments section, said Cates Holderness, the site’s community editor.

Quartz uses a “light level of moderation,” according to Seward. When readers leave an annotation, an editor has the power to remove it if it’s off-topic or spam.

Comment boards on The Huffington Post are moderated 24/7; every comment undergoes moderation, according to director of community, Tim McDonald.

The site has recently made it a priority “to emphasize civility, allowing different and differing voices to be heard in a respectful way,” McDonald said. The Huffington Post also stopped allowing anonymous commenters in 2013; it requires users to sign in with a verified Facebook account.

3. Verification

Some news organizations are making an effort to go beyond simply scrubbing out bad comments — such as the libelous and the profane  — and are trying to amplify the good ones.

On The New York Times, 478 readers are graced with green checkmarks as “verified commenters,” and their posts go up on the site without any moderation from Times editors.

These individuals are “selected algorithmically based on the breadth and quality of the comments they have submitted over time,” Sasha Koren, the paper’s deputy editor of interactive news, said in a Public Editor journal post.

The Times also includes “NYT Picks” and “Readers’ Picks” in its comment section, choosing to feature certain comments it deems particularly valuable, or ones readers “recommend.”

At The Washington Post, community manager Julia Carpenter said there’s a new initiative in the works to amplify and highlight comments from people quoted in a story or “directly mentioned in a story’s event.”

“This kind of user-generated content will add another layer of context upon a story and deepen readers’ understanding of an event or situation,” Carpenter said.

What is the future of commenting?

There is no widespread agreement among news organizations on the correct way to handle a comments section, but it’s clear some editors are putting more thought into designing these spaces to correspond with a website’s mission.

Annotations, for example, appear to be gaining momentum as an online feature – they have been well-received at Gawker Media (where you can annotate images), Medium (where they’re called “notes”), and Rap Genius, and were recently implemented into the comment platform Livefyre.

“We’ll see more of this form of commenting in the future,” said Talia Stroud of the Engaging News Project, a research project at the University of Texas (which conducted a News Engagement Workshop in April). “I think annotation systems may encourage more relevant comments that are tied to the meat of the article.”

Stroud also predicted that more sites will begin strategizing how to foster engaged comments sections that better encourage users to contribute from mobile devices.

“With the popularity of texting and social media on mobile … it’s clear that people aren’t averse to typing on mobile and engaging with others,” she said. “I think it’s just a matter of time before we figure out how to do comments on mobile.”

  • Bob Becker

    There’s always the option chosen by the Ogden (UT) Standard Examiner: replace existing comments software with new software that is so difficult to use, it actively discourages comments. ( E.g. new software does not permit editing of comments, old did. New software does not permit paragraphing, crunching longer posts into single indigestable blocks of type, old permitted paragraphs. New software does not permit posting of live links, old did. New software does not permit expansion of small type by spreading fingers on touchscreen tablets,.old did. New software does not send notice of replies to posters, old did. Comments have of course plummeted and the paper’s website which had become a lively forum for public discussion no longer is.

    • Lisa Rossi

      Thanks, Bob. I would welcome any thoughts/ideas on how to make a great comment section — that people actually want to read — “a lively forum for public discussion,” as you said. What is the best way to do that?

      • Bob Becker

        Since you asked…. I’m a fan of the “light moderation” model (locally, the Salt Lake Trib model). Wholly un-moderated boards become magnets for the truly toxic. Overly moderated sites, particularly those applying ideological screenings, drive away serious discussants.

        In these days when the number of places that act as “commons,” places where people often and easily gather to chew over local public affairs, from the prospects of the local team next season, to the latest idiocy ( or evidence of intelligence) of the city council — see “Bowling Alone” — are sharply reduced, a paper that provides via well-designed comment boards an effective forum for public discussion is performing an important service for readers.

        I’m intrigued by the NYT notion of designating “verified commenters” whose posts are put up un-moderated (described above). Some posting software Disqus for example) certainly collects sufficient date on posters to allow some metric to be applied that would automatically confer such status on non-problem posters. It would have to be some automatic process fior small market dailies, since they are so strapped for cash and sraff they could not, I think afford staff to devote much time to a qualitative review of many posters’comments. It’s an intruguing idea.

        Re: annotating. OK, but NOT as a substitute for comment boards. Annotating is the Twitter version of public comment, seems to me. During a contentious period in the city’s history here, with a controversial mayor in office, the Standard Examiner comment boards came alive over zoning, RDAs, Council actions, etc. Attornies, realtors, business people, many others, joined in with lengthy and informative ( and often combative, but civily so) posts. City council members posted as did city administration reps and occasionally state legislators. (Not likely under the new SE restrictive software.) I would really hate, as a subscriber, as a resident, to lose that kind of forum for good. I don’t think annotation will come close to matching that, at least as I understand how it works.

        Well, you asked. Probably should add full disclsure) that I’m a 70 year old with a lifetime newspaper habit who’s been told by SE reporters that I’ve seen “The Front Page” too many times.

  • Gregory Hitchcock

    Is there a reason to edit comments for length, clarity, or jargon in addition to profanity?

    Also, I think having certain comments highlighted for importance is undemocratic. Who is to decide which comments are more worthy than others? I think every opinion has equal value.

  • Harry

    I just had someone easily find my personal information from a hufpo comment and contact my employer under the guise of disagreeing with my comment. It of course turned into a sales pitch on how that person could help the organization from being associated with comments. That is the future of this comment section. Hufpo opened up all manner of abuse. I find it sad how much censorship there “media” companies are into. If you go on the site, you must have an opinion that matches or will suffer consequences. Scary.

  • James Harris

    Comments are potentially SO valuable. And can satisfy so many things including additional help with picking out errors as well as giving a feel for what people are willing to say on a subject.

    I think the future of comments are companies dedicated to them, where the problem for those companies is figuring out best practices as well as how to generate revenue.

    But people love to feel like they have a voice. I find it hard to believe they’ll accept simply having that door closed even if they’re unlikely to use it.

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