Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

How to manage the resources you devote to managing reader comments

Before spending too much money, take some time. Spend the time strategizing, researching, understanding what your audience wants, what you want and how comments will help you deliver this.

Can you accomplish this through comments? If you believe so, do you have the time to maintain the system?

The time news organizations are spending monitoring comments is all over the map, according to APME’s survey results.

Hours spent managing comments % of publishers
2 to 4 15%
5 to 8 11.25%
9 to 12 20%
13 to 16 27.5%
17 to 20 23.75%
20 to 24 2.5%

Data Source: APME survey, 2014

AMERICAN PRESS INSTITUTE

“It seems to me that news organizations create comments sections because they think that they need a space to hear what their readers think about their stories, or to allow ‘free speech,'” said Dooling, audience development specialist. “But many don’t want to put in the time to moderate or keep these sections safe, and some don’t even have community managers.”

Community manager salaries vary, some as low as $35,000, others as high as $85,000. These costs don’t even include the development and maintenance costs of the tools, said Dooling.

And, building a platform like Gawker’s Kinja takes a lot of money. As Nick Denton, Gawker’s founder, told Mathew Ingram, he has the “luxury of being able to experiment with such features because the company is privately held and ‘significantly profitable.'” Kinja was financed 100 percent through Gawker’s operating cash flow.

If cash flow is a problem, and you don’t have time or money, consider doing what you can with what you have and spending more time than money.

Are there other ways to achieve your goal?

It all comes down to your news organization’s goal and strategy: What do you want to achieve? If your answer is engagement, are comments the best route for your organization?

Consider alternative ways to achieve the value you are looking for, such as this list of community engagement techniques, which Steve Buttry put together. Using a different technique could potentially save you money and time.

  • Social media
  • Blog networks
  • Crowdsourcing
  • Breaking news
  • Engaging through stories and community events
  • Curation and aggregation
  • Content submitted by users
  • Make content engaging
  • Voting
  • Contests
  • Face-to-face
  • Schools
  • Community groups and feedback

If you’ve already opted not to make major technical changes, consider these options

Updating your policy: The Spokesman-Review in Washington State changed its commenting policy in August 2014. “We no longer will allow comments to be posted on national or international stories, or letters to the editor,” wrote editor Gary Graham, noting that the comments will be allowed on local stories, staff blogs and staff columns, but that these discussions will no longer take place beneath the content. Instead readers now click the link provided where they are brought to a separate page for discussion.

Graham said the two goals behind these changes were to “encourage more constructive and civil discourse on local issues” and to reduce the amount of time staff spend monitoring comments. “It’s no secret that our newsroom ranks are much smaller in the wake of the economic tsunami that has wreaked havoc on the industry, and time spent moderating comments is time we cannot spend on research, reporting and editing,” he wrote.

Using untapped, available resources – your readers

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has been praised for his work in moderating comments and fostering engagement, said at one point he was spending more time moderating comments than he was writing for The Atlantic, according to Bob Cohn, president and chief operating officer of the publication.

“So if you believe — as I do — that comment sections can be good when aggressively moderated, but you don’t — as we don’t — have the human resources to undertake that moderating, what’s the answer?” Cohn wrote.

Coates identified readers who were “‘wise’ and who had already ‘done the work of moderating by cooling down threads that were on the cusp of becoming knife fights.'” The Atlantic incorporated a new approach by assigning these “faithful readers” to moderate Coates’ comments. “They have the power to discipline and even ban.”

Minimal software updates and design changes

Discuss with your IT staff and see what plugins or updates are available and what changes could be carried out with minimal expense and labor. Graham said the changes recently made at The Spokesman-Review were relatively easy.

Additionally, Stroud and fellow researchers investigated the “like” button because “like” does not always seem appropriate. “Word choices are consequential,” she said.

Stroud’s study, which gathered data from more than 700 people, found that from a business angle, “respondents seeing a ‘Respect’ button clicked on more comments in a comment section.” And, from a democratic angle, “respondents seeing a ‘Respect’ button clicked on more comments from another political perspective in comparison to the ‘Recommend’ or ‘Like’ buttons.”

If you have decided to change your system, consider the following

Free third-party tools and services, such as Facebook or DISQUS

Payne said he believes larger news organizations have an obligation to “curate the discussion” through “moderation and monitoring.” And, although he believes Facebook is a “copout” for larger news organizations because “they see it as a way to not have to monitor and moderate the discussions,” he said the site could potentially serve the needs of a smaller news organization. This is because, Payne said, with smaller news organizations,  “the volume of comments is so low to begin with, and they are less likely to have the resources to build a system or buy a vendor product.”

Don’t forget to ask questions and consider any potential associated costs that come with moving platforms:

  • Will you maintain ownership rights?
  • Is it customizable?
  • Does the platform offer analytics?

Also, look into open-source projects, on websites like Github, and take advantage of free code.

Ask for help

Consider partnering with a local academic institution to test strategies or build a system. The Sacramento Bee partnered with Stanford’s journalism and computer science graduate students to research data and to build a commenting system.

“I was really apprehensive the first time I reached out to USC and Stanford. But, even in the computer science departments of these schools, they understand newspapers serve an important role in their communities and that publishers are struggling and need some help,” said Tom Negrete, The Bee’s director of innovation and news operations, in a Q&A with API.

“You do need someone at your organization who is given some time to talk, explore possibilities and determine what relationship and project your publication should be cultivating, working to make happen,” he said.

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