Are comment sections on news websites on the way out?

Trying to tame “the world of horrible Internet awfulness.”  (David Tarp, CEO, Tumblr)

Online CommentsOne of the most empowering aspects of the Internet is its ability to foster online interaction and feedback, wherein “regular people” have a megaphone in addition to journalists and writers on publisher websites.

But there’s an ugly side to the public dialogue, unfortunately: There’s an awful lot of verbal “dirty laundry” that gets put on display.

It’s sort of like taking younger children to the state fair or a sporting event — and then trying to shield them from the loud profanity (and worse) that they overhear.

The fact is, you can’t get away from the coarseness on online comment sections – particularly if the news content pertains to political or socio-cultural topics.

It’s often a “drive to the bottom” where social norms and common decency fall by the wayside in the name of airing grievances or settling scores.

It extends to less potentially inflammatary zones beyond polarizing politics, too.  Researchers have found that people who read the same news story about a new technology, but who are exposed to different sets of coments — one set fair and the other nasty — have completely different responses to the news story itself.  In the research, commenter anonymity and the ability to strongly attack a news story without the need to back it up with facts, caused ill effects that were neither accurate or fair.

The researchers dubbed it “The Nasty Effect.”

For some time now, Internet news and information sites have tried to strike a balance between access and interactivity on the one hand … and civility and decorum on the other.

In many cases, the quest has been frustratingly difficult. Here’s what some publishers have said about the issue:

“There’s got to be a better [way] to interact without comments taking away from the article or denigrating the people who are reported on.”  — Craig Newman, Chicago Sun-Times

“One of the worst things about writing in public is fielding random ad hominem attacks … in the space in which you’ve poured out your precious thoughts.”  — Ev Williams, Medium

“Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.”  — Suzanne LeBarre, Popular Science

As a result, now we’re seeing more instances of publishers and bloggers killing their comment sections completely.  Consider these examples:

… As of this month, the Chicago Sun-Times has axed its comment capability for the foreseeable future.

… The much anticipated March 2014 launch of Vox (Ezra Klein’s news venture), doesn’t provide for feedback comments.

… The same goes for The Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s website.

Popular Science shut down its comment sections this past September.

… Atlantic Media’s Quartz business site hasn’t ever allowed comments on its site since its launch in 2012.

… And neither has Tumblr.

But it seems rather unrealistic to think that comments sections can be banned from the Internet outright. That would be like trying to put the genie back in the bottle.

Instead, a via media approach may be what the Huffington Post has done. This past December, it implemented a policy wherein commenters must use their Facebook accounts and real names in order to post a comment on Huffington Post stories.

Those who wished to continue posting comments under pseudonyms have had to “appeal” for the right to do.

The goal? To make people think twice before publishing strongly worded comments — the kind that say as much about the poster as they do about the object of their commentary.

Despite the predictable howls from some readers who feel that the right to express an opinion without fear of reprisal is a big part of the appeal of the Internet, four months later the Huffington Post sees the move in positive terms.

The publisher’s community director Tim McDonald reports that the number of “faux” accounts in its system has gone way down – and the quality of discourse is up.

With this approach, perhaps “shameless” needn’t upstage  “shame” after all — and the benefits of interactivity and debate can be preserved at the same time.

Are “News Hound” Behaviors Changing?

News Hound Behaviors are ChangingMost of the people I know who are eager consumers of news tend to spend far more time on the Internet than they do offline with their nose in the newspaper.

So I was surprised to read the results of a new study published by Gather, Inc., a Boston-based online media company, which found that self-described “news junkies” are more likely to rely on traditional media sources like television, newspapers and radio than online ones.

In fact, the survey, which was fielded in March 2010 and queried the news consumption habits of some 1,450 respondents representing a cross-section of age and income demographics, found that more than half of the “news hounds” cited newspapers as their primary source of news.

By comparison, younger respondents (below age 25) are far more likely to utilize the Internet for reading news (~70% do so).

Another interesting finding in the Gather study – though not terribly surprising – is that younger respondents describe themselves as “interest-based,” meaning that apart from breaking news, they focus only on stories of interest to them. This pick-and-choose “cafeteria-style” approach to news consumption may partially explain the great gaps in knowledge that the “over 40” population segment perceives in the younger generations (those observations being reported with accompanying grunts of displeasure, no doubt).

As for sharing news online, there are distinct differences in the behavior of older versus younger respondents. Two findings are telling:

 More than two-thirds of respondents age 45 and older share news items with other primarily through e-mail communiqués.

 ~55% of respondents under age 45 share news primarily through social networking.

Also, more than 80% of the respondents in Gather’s study revealed that they have personally posted online comments about news stories. This suggests that people have now become more “active” in the news by weighing in with their own opinions, rather than just passively reading the stories. This is an interesting development that may be rendering the 90-9-1 principle moot.

[For those who are unfamiliar with the 90-9-1 rule, it contends that for every 100 people interacting with online content, one creates the content … nine edit, modify or comment on that content … and the remaining 90 passively read/review the content without undertaking any further action. It’s long been a tenet in discussions about online behavior.]

What types of news stories are most likely to generate reader comments? Well, politics and world events are right up there, but local news stories are also a pretty important source for comments:

 Political stories: 28%
 National/international news stories: 27%
 Local news stories: 22%
 Celebrity news: 13%
 Sports stories: 5%
 Business and financial news: 5%

And what about the propensity for news seekers to use search engines to find multiple perspectives on a news story? More than one-third of respondents report that they “click on multiple [search engine] results to get a variety of perspectives,” while less than half of that number click on just the first one or two search result entries.

And why wouldn’t people hunt around more? In today’s world, it’s possible to find all sorts of perspectives and “slants” on a news story, whereas just a few years ago, you’d have to be content with the same AP or UPI wire story that you’d find republished in dozens of papers — often word-for-word.

Where Does the News Begin? Pew Looks for Answers.

Pew studies news reporting today ... and who's crafting it.
You don’t have to be over 50 years old to be concerned about where the world might be heading when it comes to the generation of news stories and how they are vetted. As newspapers and other publishers have cut the size of their reporting and editorial staffs, the quality and consistency of news reporting has suffered in the eyes of many.

Recently, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism decided to take a look at this issue to see how it’s playing out on the ground by studying the “news ecosystem” of a single geographic region. The market chosen for the study – Baltimore, Maryland – just happens to be in my backyard, so I’ve been able to review the results with a good understanding of the dynamics of the region in question.

Pew’s Baltimore study evaluated the news environment during the summer of 2009 and came to some interesting conclusions. While the regional media landscape – print, web, radio and TV – has broadened considerably to include 53 separate outlets that regularly produce and broadcast some form of news content, much of what is truly “new news” came from the traditional news outlets and not from other media resources.

Six major local/regional news threads were studied, ranging from the Maryland state budget situation to crime trends, issues affecting the metro transit system, and the sale of the Senator Theater, a local historical landmark. An analysis of those news threads found that:

 More than 80% of the news stories were repetitive – just rehashes of someone else’s original news content that contained no new information.

 Of the ~20% of the news stories that did include new information, nearly all of the content came from traditional media, published either in conventional format (e.g., print) or in digital.

 General-audience newspapers like the Baltimore Sun produced roughly half of the news stories, followed by local TV stations such as WBAL-TV contributing ~30% of the reporting.

 Specialty business or legal newspaper outlets such as the Baltimore Business Journal and the Daily Record contributed just under of 15% of the news items, with the remaining news reporting coming primarily from local radio stations such as WYPR-FM.

 Interestingly, about one-third of the news coverage generated by newspaper publishers appeared on the Internet rather than in their print editions.

Thus, the Pew study demonstrates that “new news” is coming from the same sources as before, led by the local papers. But another clear picture to emerge from the Baltimore profile is that the scaling back of editorial staffs has resulted in less original reporting, with much heavier reliance on simply republishing stories that have appeared elsewhere.

At the same time, new interactive capabilities are giving “we the people” an unparalleled broadcast platform via the ability to post feedback and commentary, not to mention utilizing Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms as a megaphone.

In today’s “everyone’s an editor because they can write” environment, no one can stop us from broadcasting our own opinions and analysis to the world. But that’s not the same thing as a properly sourced, properly vetted news story. And that’s what Pew sees falling away.

Newspaper publishers and online news consumers: Still miles apart on paid content.

How can the views and perspectives of newspaper publishers and readers be so out of kilter? It might have something to do with “wishful thinking” on the part of the publishers.

Case in point: American Press Institute has just released the results of a field research study that compares the opinions of readers and publishers on paying for news content.

Naturally, this issue is of paramount concern to newspapers that are trying to create a new business model that is profitable. In fact, nearly 60% of the publisher respondents in the survey reported that they’re considering requiring paid access for online news — news that is currently provided to readers free of charge. At the same time, these respondents seem to believe that consumers will willingly “pay to play” in a new paid-content environment.

But I wonder about that.

Here’s an example of the disconnect between newspaper publishers and news consumers found in the survey: More than two-thirds of the publishers believe it will be “not very easy” or “not easy at all” for consumers to find similar news content online from alternative free sources once the shift to paid content happens. Do consumers agree? Well … only ~43% think the same way.

And where do newspaper publishers think people will go for news if their paper’s free online information is no longer available to them? Again, we see a big disparity in the results. The top three sources publishers think consumers will turn to are:

 The publisher’s own print newspaper: 75%
 Other local media: 55%
 Television: 53%

For consumers, those alternate sources all rated lower – in two cases, dramatically so:

 The publisher’s own print newspaper: 30%
 Other local media: 17%
 Television: 45%

[For the record, the alternative free news source identified by the most consumers was “other local web sites,” cited by 68% of respondents.]

With such dramatically different views held by newspaper publishers and their consumers, it’s clear that both sides can’t be correct. I’ll to bet that the consumers’ responses are closer to the reality.

For this reason, it would be advisable for publishers to tread very carefully as they attempt a shift to a paid content business model. Does the term “evaporating audiences” mean anything to them?

New Business Models for Newspapers: Tilting at Windmills?

Hope springs eternal in the newspaper world, despite the fact that the business has been unremittingly bleak for … it seems like ages.

And yet, new business models are being trotted out. In addition to publisher Rupert Murdoch announcing that he intends to begin charging for viewing online content of his various papers beginning next year, Journalism Online announced in August that it has signed up nearly 180 dailies as affiliate partners.

Journalism Online is author and lawyer Steven Brill’s venture which is offering a variety of “pay models” that allow for micro-payments, subscriptions, sampling, and versatile flexibility in what news content is offered free or for a charge. Reportedly, more than 500 newspapers, magazines and other media properties have now agreed to sign up.

According to Brill, “By creating a platform of flexible hybrid models for paid content that maximizes online advertising revenue while creating a new revenue stream from readers, Journalism Online has helped shift the debate over charging for online news from ‘if’ to ‘when and how.’”

Just how is this supposed to work in a practical sense? The idea is for newspapers to focus attention on the top 10% of their most avid online readers, which would result in preserving approximately 90% of page views as well as ad revenues, even while migrating to a paid-content structure.

Oh, really?

This forecast pans out only if all of those “avid readers” continue to visit the site after a fee or subscription program is introduced. But what’s to ensure that will actually happen?

The marketing world is littered with examples of rosy projections and expectations that flamed out – despite a bevy of opinion research and focus group interviews predicting otherwise. That’s because talk is cheap.

But most online news is even cheaper – as in free. Nevertheless … hope springs eternal.