Why Comments Matter

I was sitting at the pool in Portoroz Slovenia this afternoon and had an interesting experience. I grabbed the weekend edition of the International Herald Tribune after the Gotham Gal had finished off the crossword and started reading the opinion section. At the top of the page was an opinion piece by a guy named Douglas Bailey, President of DBMediaStrategies, titled "Do Not Comment On This Article". It was a reprint of an opinion piece in the Boston Globe from last week. You should click through and read his opinion, but I'll summarize it here:

I’ve concluded there’s one outlet that should be abandoned: those comment forums at the end of articles on newspaper websites.


these forums are insidiously contributing to the devaluation of
journalism, blurring the truth, confusing the issues, and diminishing
serious discourse beyond even talk radio’s worst examples.


The level of commentary demeans and devalues the very product newspapers should be promoting

Around the same time, I saw a tweet by Mathew Ingram, who blogs reguarly about the news industry. His tweet said:

every blogger — or journalist for that matter — should take lessons from @fredwilson in how to engage with readers: http://bit.ly/15Tto0

And then I saw another tweet from Jonathan Landman, deputy managing editor at the New York Times, retweeting his colleague Tim O'Brien, who edits the sunday business section of the NY Times. It said:

RT @TimOBrienNYT: @fredwilson post worth reading. In comments, a rare intelligent discussion of pay-for-news. http://bit.ly/PTZHR

It's odd that all this hit me in the span of an hour or so this afternoon. But it did.

All four of these people, Doug Bailey, Mathew Ingram, Jonathan Landman, and Tim O'Brien are journalists or former journalists. And they are talking about comments, whether they are intelligent discourse, and whether they belong in journalism. This is a discussion worth having. So lets have it.

I agree that simply adding a comment thread at the end of a news story is a recipe for trouble. But it is only a recipe for trouble if that is as far as you go. An unattended comment thread will be full of garbage and many are.

But if the author of the news story, or opinion piece, or blog post, tends to the comments, replies to the good ones, signals the bad ones, chastises the loudmouth bullies, and generally runs the comment threads like a serious discussion group, a serious discussion will result.

It's an issue for the news industry because tending to comment threads is not part of a journalist's traditional job. But I would argue that it is now and they ought to get busy doing it. For one, the journalists that do it and do it well will be better read. And they'll be better informed. They'll get tips in the comment threads. They'll get constructive criticism that will help them do their job better. And they'll get leads on new stories before others will.

All you have to do to understand this is hang out in the comment threads on this blog. They are the very best thing about this blog and I have worked hard to make them great. I've had help. The disqus comment system, provided by our portfolio company Disqus, is the best comment system on the market by a long shot. It allows me to engage in the comments wherever and whenever I want to or need to. And it allows the community to easily log in with various social profiles, authenticate themselves (which is key), and weigh in.

I've also been helped by commenters like my brother Jackson, Kid Mercury, and others who have acted as "bouncers". They help me police the comment threads and make sure the conversation stays civil and high minded. Most of all, I've been helped by the commenters themselves who understand the rules, even through they are not written anywhere, and follow them.

So my advice to the world of journalism is to ignore Douglas Bailey's advice and keep the comment threads at the end of news stories. But doing that is not enough. You need to use the best comment systems out there and they are usually from third parties like Disqus, not from your CMS vendor. And you need to have your journalists participate actively in the discussions. If you do all of that, you can host great discussions at the end of your news stories and who wouldn't want that?

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