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As news orgs drop comment sections, data shows users don’t think they’re that important

NPR announced this week that it would discontinue story-page comments on Aug. 23, in favor of engaging with its readers in other spaces, such as social media.

Analyzing its audience, NPR found that only a small percentage of its readers were using the comment section: Only 1 percent of NPR’s 25 to 35 million unique monthly visitors are commenting, NPR’s managing editor for digital news Scott Montgomery says. Plus, the number of readers using the comment section on a regular basis is even smaller: Only 2,600 people have posted a comment in each of the last three months, or 0.003 percent of the 79.8 million visitors to NPR’s website in that time.

The Toronto Star, Vice’s Motherboard, Mic, Reuters and others have made similar decisions to eliminate comments in the past year.

In fact most Americans don’t place a great emphasis on news website comments, according to recent research from the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Our research on what leads users to trust and rely on certain news sources shows that only 1 in 3 Americans said it is very important that digital news sources allow people to comment on news. In focus groups, participants said they found some value in those features. But other issues related to ads and mobile compatibility were more important than allowing comments.

Extremely/very important Somewhat important Not very/not important at all Don't know/refuse
The ads do not interfere with getting news and information 63% 18% 12% 7%
The site or app loads fast 63% 21% 8% 8%
It works well on my mobile phone 60% 17% 16% 7%
It uses visuals such as photos, videos, lists, or charts 51% 28% 13% 9%
The news and information include hyperlinks to get more information 46% 32% 15% 8%
It allows people to comment on news and information 30% 27% 37% 6%

Data Source: Question: Thinking about when you get news from [NAMED SOURCE] on [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED] in a digital format, how important is each of the following for you?

Media Insight Project

But for certain types of news stories, Americans tend to think that the ability to comment is more important. In particular, 50 percent of people said it was very important for a news organization to allow comments on crime and public safety stories. In comparison, just 23 percent of people said it was very important for news organizations to allow comments on local news stories.

Crime and public safety 50%
Weather or traffic 36%
Domestic issues 35%
Lifestyle 29%
National politics 28%
Foreign or international news 23%
Local news 23%
Sports 22%

Data Source: Question: Thinking about when you get news from [NAMED SOURCE] on [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED] in a digital format, how important is each of the following for you? It allows people to comment on news and information.

Media Insight Project

NPR’s ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen explains that if you see the comment section as a place to foster constructive conversations, NPR’s decision to discontinue story-page comments isn’t a surprising one. “The number of complaints to NPR about the current comment system has been growing,” Jensen writes. “Complaints that comments were censored by the outside moderators, and that commenters were behaving inappropriately and harassing other commenters.”

Now, NPR will focus on social media as its primary way of engaging with its readers. Though Facebook as a commenting platforms comes with its downsides, Jensen suggests that “Facebook discussions that do take place, in particular, tend to be more civil, most likely because users are required to use their own names.”

For news organizations thinking about better ways to engage with readers through comments, check out API’s Strategy Study on how to choose the best commenting platform for your news site, including how to shape the nature of comments posted on your website. You can also browse everything we’ve published or curated about comments.

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