Please keep comments: don’t follow the lead of NPR

Comments
No more of this at NPR.org

NPR.org’s decision to eliminate comments on its web site is being applauded and no more so than in a Washington Post (WaPo) opinion piece. So few dominant the conversation and do not represent the overall audience. Hence, comments at NPR.org are not worth the trouble as of Aug. 23.

While I am sure NPR.org’s decision was not taken lightly, I disagree with it. A conversation dominated by a few is better than no conversation at all, which is what media was until the Internet came along in the mid 90s. Here’s how NPR.org explained its decision in a blog post – a comment in an of itself, really.

“When NPR analyzed the number of people who left at least one comment in both June and July, the numbers showed an even more interesting pattern: Just 4,300 users posted about 145 comments apiece, or 67 percent of all NPR.org comments for the two months. More than half of all comments in May, June and July combined came from a mere 2,600 users. The conclusion: NPR’s commenting system — which gets more expensive the more comments that are posted, and in some months has cost NPR twice what was budgeted — is serving a very, very small slice  in its overall audience.”

We all know media orgs are hurting financially so this may be more the reason than wrapping the flag around better serving the overall audience. How do these comments hurt the audience? If they don’t like them, they can ignore them. The 2,600 users NPR.org is rejecting are probably the site’s most ardent followers.

For decades if not centuries, newspapers, for instance, were a one way conversations, save the small fraction of letters to the editor that got published. Once a columnist got on a perch, he or she never stopped talking from on high to its readers. Newspapers were all powerful and arrogant.

Comments made them a little less so and opened up a two-way conversation. I religiously read them in my hometown newspaper, The Boston Globe and they add many perspectives. My sense is that there are more commenters is this community as opposed to the few (lefties, presumably) who dominate NPR.org.

I would be very disappointed if the Globe discontinued comments. Yes, some are snarky. Yes, there’s commenting equivalents to club house rats. And there’s no way to tell who the commenters are, but in sum, they’re engaging with the content and the community.

If nothing else, comments let readers vent. Now NPR.org has decided to deny its followers that same opportunity.

Is this foundation of the two-way conversation being eliminated to better serve NPR’s apparent silent majority who do not comment? It probably knows less about those keeping their traps shut than it does about the commenters. I don’t see how comment elimination serves their adherents better. Maybe, the move is purely a cost cutting measure.

Eliminating comments or leaving them to social media outlets like Facebook removes the community aspect of a media site.

Commenting at ground zero – on the story or blog post – is more satisfying and immediate than transferring the conversation to Facebook or sites designed specifically for commenting. The commenter usually figures is monitoring the comments at the content itself. The author might not even be on Facebook where NPR.org is sending its commenters.

Chris Cillizza in his WaPo column complains about the quality of commenting dialog at his blog, “The Fix.”

I would regularly go into the comments to interact (or try to interact) with readers. I incentivized and deputized regular commenters to keep order. Then I gave up. Because none of the tactics or strategies we tried ever had any real impact on the quality of the dialogue happening on The Fix.

What exactly is a “high quality dialog?” There may be as many opinions about that as there are folks who comment.

Cillizza rejoiced at NPR’s decision and urged that “all other major media organizations should follow NPR’s lead.” That thinking is so retro. Maybe he yearns for print journalism to make comeback when there wasn’t much push back and as many voices – no matter how inane, low quality or in some cases, vile.

After all, we’ve withstood Trump for a year and a half now.

As you would expect, there’s hundreds of comments running against NPR.org’s announcement (1,296 and counting). As one wrote, “That’s exactly the kind of thing that goes on in China and Iran. Reasonable people won’t stand for it.”

For NPR.org, this is a huge blunder. Reducing engagement will likely cut substantially into its page views and other metrics that t uses to size itself up. And I did not find any deeply compelling reasons for its move in the two blog posts it published explaining why it is taking such drastic action.

I urge media organizations not to muzzle the commenters. For better or worse, let them be heard. No, encourage them to be heard. Comments welcome.

 

 

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