In his recent Boston Globe op-ed, DBMediaStrategies president Doug Bailey presented his manifesto on reader comment sections.
His conclusion: reader comments devalue journalism, blur the truth and confuse the issues. He suggests publishers rid their sites of user forums as a first step toward restoring journalism’s dignity. Ironically (or maybe not so?) the op-ed saw 190—mostly out of spite, and presumably unedited—reader comments.
Our own mediaPRO social network elicited feedback from FOLIO: readers on the topic. Beginning the thread was Rachael Globus, editor-in-chief at Event Publishing LLC, who wrote: “Is this guy [Bailey] for real? … When are publishers going to get it that user-generated content is content? Yes, it’s still a reporter’s job to sift through complex issues to present a coherent narrative and there will always be demand for that. But why in the world would it be beneath a newspaper to host the lively debates its content sparks?”
Doing away with reader comments completely may seem extreme. But Bailey’s op-ed brings to light something that publishers are still struggling with: how much unattended—or unedited—content is worthwhile content?
"An unattended comment thread will be full of garbage and many are,” blogged Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist and principal of Union Square Ventures. And this sometimes useless user discussion, University of Mississippi professor Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni told FOLIO:, is a result of editors treating threads as “an easy excuse to have less editing and fact checking” and “to assume that your readers’ comments and letters are true and factual. Editors will never publish some of the stuff in print that they publish on their Web sites, and thus they have no one to blame but themselves.”
Reporters Take on a New Role
I’d be lying if I said that FOLIOmag.com didn’t have its share of inappropriate, raging and nonsensical “comments”—which we screen before they are published to the Web. But we also get some very focused analysis from insiders, which can help to advance the story we’re reporting on.
But as comment sections continue to gain traction, is it the job of editors and reporters to moderate and lead discussions?
“Reporters aren’t trained to be talk show hosts, but that’s what a forum is all about,” said custom publisher Hammock Inc. CEO Rex Hammock. He, like Husni, believes that if editors are not going to moderate comments, then there is no reason to include them as part of a Web presence.
The upside to comment maintenance? “Journalists that do it [moderate, edit and offer feedback] and do it well will be better read,” wrote Wilson. “And they’ll be better informed. They’ll get tips in the comment threads, constructive criticism that will help them do their job better, and leads on new stories before others will."
While this may be a bit of optimism about what can be culled from reader comments, at the very least, publishers need to establish that: “Being invited into a discussion is like being invited into someone’s home,” said Hammock. “Add to the conversation and you’ll be rewarded. Be an ass, and you’ll get kicked out.”