As the media are seeking to develop their commitment to their readers, an obscure trend has been developing in the last three years, and various news websites are shutting their below-the-line comments sections.

NPR is the latest to declare the closing of its own story-page section. Following eight years spent experimenting with comments on its features, the American public media concluded it was not providing a user experience for the broad preponderance of its users.

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NPR follows a direction started in 2013 by Popular Science, an American magazine. Three years following, the publication still thinks it made the correct choice and Carl Franzen, online director at Popular Science, recognised a distinct division between the website and its social media pages.

The website is the place to learn and participate and the discussions that happen on the social media channels.

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It’s not the primary result of the media and Facebook, being first and foremost a social network, has the structure and policies in position to encourage better communications where the Popular Science account, as well as writers, communicate with their fans.

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Social media such as Facebook or Twitter make for greater quality discussions than story-page remarks because of the barrier  and browsers have to make an additional effort to go to another website. Although it introduces friction to the process, it’s helpful friction because it gives an understanding that is sometimes misplaced with the immediacy of social media.

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Nevertheless, Arlene Burgos, head of social media at the integrated news division at ABS-CBN, a principal Philippine media, is not so enthused about the kind of discussions on Facebook. ABS-CBN’s account numbers 11.7 million participants, one-tenth of the Philippines’ population.

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According to her, Facebook gives a large area but is not always a community for creative conversation. She doesn’t think it is a spot where people can come to talk societal concerns to direct political activity like Jurgen Habermas’ public sphere.

Recently, she’s also observed a significant portion of people acting irresponsibly and writing without considering the outcomes their words have and these people could capture the public discourse and could start establishing the tone of the discussion and it could be risky if it goes that way.

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Megan Whelan, the community engagement editor at Radio New Zealand (RNZ), which closed its comment sections, also believes it makes sense to shift the conversation to social media because it’s where readers are.

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In the case of RNZ, they are capable of reaching various readers such as native New Zealand people, younger people and women.

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John Arne Markussen, editor in chief at Dagbladet, a Norwegian newspaper, has noticed comparable trends when his paper chose to centre on their social media community.

You have to give preference to something and they have chosen to move the discussion to the social media.

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In Popular Science, NPR, Radio New Zealand and Dagbladet’s cases, only a minority of their actual readers were engaging in their below-the-line comments section. Only 1,400 users signed up and they were hardly commenting more than once a week on RNZ’s website.

Following talks with the digital leadership team, Megan Whelan believed the only way to make story-page comments work was to apply her whole time turning it into a community, communicating and moderating.

Staff and financial resource restrictions were frequently part of the reason why publications decided to stop their own comments sections particularly considering it’s a hard time in the media industry.

Dagbladet decided to build an online presence as early as 1995 and at first, there was no moderation for their comments.

In 2012, they outsourced the moderation to a Swedish company and a year following that they decided to experiment with internal moderators, whom he saw as debate leaders.

Some senior reporters as well as three younger journalists watched the comments and communicated with readers and it went moderately well but it was an expensive process.

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ABS-CBN closed its story-page comments segment for comparable reasons and there were numerous comments and so few staff to moderate and fully engage with the readers.

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News24, a major South African media, further recognised to engage comprehensively with its readers on its website would need a significant financial and staff investment but, at the time, it had now chosen to invest in a newsroom of digital-first journalists.

The experience with page-story comment moderation at News24 was especially hard and the size of the comments was tremendous and hate discourse, in particular, was widespread but to make moderation simpler and more effective for journalists, the media had an automatic filter in place.

Moderators would pick the words for the filter to watch out for and forbid. Nevertheless, it did not always work.

They were smart and pretty careful. As one offensive word was banned, the next day it would be a version of a different word and it was difficult to keep up with it.

There were numerous journalists in the management of moderation but the funds were still poor and even though users had to comment through their Facebook profiles, it did not hinder them from posting offensive remarks and some would slide through the rigorous monitoring of journalists.

News24 management was disputing their comments system as it was and they were concerned about legal accountability and reputational concerns if they continued with our current comments system, so the news publication ultimately chose to close down its comments section.

Now, News24’s engagement policy focuses on helping people to write theory pieces and opening comments only on the opinion pieces and some topical stories and it was found to be so much more useful.

If there were 100 comments when the story-page comments were open, perhaps 25 percent of them would be published. Presently, as much as 80 to 85 percent get published and News24 even saw an increase in the audience.

Plus many people who were shocked by the nature of the comments generally now felt it was a place they could return to.

Closing the below-the-line comment sections is not a light-hearted and straightforward choice to make. Most often, there’s a feeling of abandoning the concept of a community communicating on the website.

There’s an advantage in having comments below a story and developing a community and conversation is something that can add an excellent quality and build an understanding of society and while established media brands are conflicted whether to close their comments section, newer media ventures such as Vox have chosen not to have a comments section.

Other news websites have opted for different comment designs like Quartz, which enables users to comment on particular sections.

The concept came from speculating about how papers in the 17th and 18th century used to leave margins for their readers to communicate their views and this approach is to encourage friendly commentary and substantive participation.

Social media is increasingly becoming the favoured place to promote discussions for various media. For a number of purposes including economic, personnel and time limitations, public programs like Facebook are being chosen for their efficiency of fairness and chance to spread to extensive and more distinct viewers.

Nevertheless, these programs do not emerge as the final answer for producing a vibrant, courteous and productive place where fans and journalists can relate and interact and while some media still believe in the necessity for below-the-line comments, numerous newsrooms are becoming displeased with the resource-intensive work it needs to get only mediocre action.

Newsrooms are therefore praying that productive energies such as The Coral Project will bring more proofs as to how to encourage greater and more comprehensive commitment.

People like to make comments and they do like to have a comments box to remark on what they think and that is the difference between a physical newspaper and a virtual one.

If newspapers and journals of any kind take away their comment space, people will be less inclined to read what the media have to say because it’s then taking away our freedom of speech, but hello people, isn’t that the plan?

If they want to filter out profanity, then why don’t they simply bar those that dish it out but really I find it more stimulating when there is a hint of controversy, blasphemy included.

Of course, people don’t have to cuss when commenting but in the passion of the moment, people do get frustrated but that’s why it’s called a debate. At least it’s all online discourse and nobody is out there parading their sabres.

Myself, if I don’t see a comments box I will go less and less to their site as there are so many semi-automated ways to filter out profanity or abuse laced comments but I say, bring it on!

It’s a foolish way to engage with the readers by taking away the only free speech they have and by removing that freedom, the media are going to suffer.

If the media don’t want to listen, observe or perceive the revolution and the anger they have stimulated, then simply don’t invite the people in the first place but the media can’t just give them freedom of speech and then take it away that will simply cause an even greater revolution.

So, essentially, if the people do not agree with what has been written, the answer is to get rid of them and their offensive beliefs. Picture us all having an opinion, what a shocking thing for the mainstream media, which means we must all be deplorable out there in the physical universe.

Cutting off all comments, both good or bad, is not ideal. It simply boils down to suppression and control although sometimes the internet brings out the worst in people, of course, we are nothing more than human beings and some of us might be a tad more uncultured than others but does that actually matter?

Poor communication, poor writing, and bad vibes are the role of public discussion and it’s sad more people don’t have the literary talents to write expert judgments, but justice is slovenly. Even people who failed their English class should and must have a voice, or we will certainly sink into anarchy in time.

Quelling people by putting up barriers, or generating one-way top-down communications is like a pressure cooker. When people lose the capacity to answer, attack and state their case, however awkwardly, the demand of cultural outbreak escalates to alarming levels, until one day it erupts into violence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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