A post on Xark! today discusses why newspaper website comments suck and what might be done to “unsuck” them. The synthesis of why they suck is that newspapers don’t allocate enough time or staff resources to participating in the conversation and, when they do, newspapers take the wrong approach to community management. In short, there is generally a lot of room for improvement.
Upgrading newsroom culture is one part of it, I believe, but the right tools have to be in place first so that participants in this new culture shift doesn’t run into barriers of frustration. I think strides can be made on both the frontend and backend of a news organization website. As a part of the user experience, comments shouldn’t require user registration but rather should be able to “sign in” with Facebook Connect or OpenID, or leave a comment with an email address to be verified once. If someone wants to add information to the discussion anonymously, I think that should be a submission form separate from the comment thread. The web is a global commons where news organizations should be facilitating intelligent conversations.
News Mixer has taken radical steps in regards to how the format of the comment, or contribution more accurately, shapes conversation. “Quips” encourage commenters to keep conversation sweet and concise, and “Questions” and “Answers” help define the quality of the article. I think it would be valuable if the community also could build on top of the information presented in an article by clarifying with their own perspective or submitting links to related context. News Mixer offers the ability to respond with questions and answers to specific paragraphs within an article; it would be sweet if someone writing a blog post could link to unique grafs within an article too as a way of building a more specific map of conversation. I also appreciate how the New York Times has “Editor’s Picks” which help distinguish signal from noise. Reporters and editors on a news website should be empowered to curate comments as a way of facilitating conversation.
Part of improving commenting will come from better tools on the administration side too. Comment moderation should be more granular, meaning that, instead of having an “Online Editor” who manages all conversations on the website, each reporter should be responsible for owning the full spectrum of discussion about their beat. WordPress, a publishing platform I’m quite familiar with, only one email notification option. Instead, reporters should be the ones approving new comments. In addition, it would be sweet to have a commenting system that recorded and presented more information about the respondent, including the number of times they had already left a comment, the topics they most commonly leave comments on, and any profile or background information either from what they’ve entered in the system or their Facebook Profile. Reporters and editors would be able to leave private notes about the commenters for future discussion moderation, and privately rate the perceived “quality” of the contribution. All of this information about the community’s contributions would be stored in a CRM database to provide value to the reporting process too.
There’s a lot of space for cool improvements in commenting systems. It’s just about building it in iterations and then experimenting.