As publisher ad revenue shrinks and we accept that Facebook traffic won’t return to previous highs, there seems to be a growing desire to create direct reader revenue through engaged audiences. Interactivity increases engagement and time spent: assets for publishers that are hard to come by in a time when Facebook can’t be relied upon like it used to, and before the usefulness of Facebook’s upcoming News tab can be understood. 

Comments sections are a tried and tested method of supplementing this interactivity, but they’re not without their downsides. Conversations concerning the ethics of comment sections (and how useful they really are for publishers, anyway) began globally around 2014, and soon, internationally renowned titles such as Reuters, NPR, Mic, and Bloomberg all dropped their comments sections. The thing is, these decisions were made on the back of the belief that social media was now the place for the kind of discussion formerly catalysed by comments. Now that publishers can’t rely on Facebook, is it time for them to reopen comments sections in the pursuit of increased engagement, and consequently, revenue?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer. In 2016, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers published a report questioning the purpose of comments, where it mentioned “potential brand damage”. Resident Advisor attributes the 2019 closure of its popular comments section to callous remarks made by trolls. The University of Texas’ Centre for Media Engagement found, in its recent study “Attacks in the Comment Sections: What It Means for News Sites”, that users who view news stories with high numbers of uncivil comments had negative attitudes towards the site. The site was viewed as less valuable than those whose comments sections boasted mainly positivity.

But, it doesn’t have to be this way. Andrew Losowsky, Head of Coral (an open-source project helping publishers build better communities around their journalism) at Vox Media, told What’s New In Publishing:

“There are compelling reasons why it’s worth investing in comments on your site. While they’re usually a small percentage of your total audience, commenters are often your most loyal and most valuable readers. They spend longer on the site, they come back more often, they share more links to your site, and they’re more likely to pay for subscriptions and other services. They’re also potential sources for ideas and stories.”

There are a few methods publishers can use to monitor their comments sections. Consider using a strong spam filter to keep spam sequestered in a spam folder, and feature a clearly displayed comment policy. You don’t have to resign yourself to old excuses, like “that’s just the internet”!

It’s difficult, however, to moderate comments at scale. One way around this is to only allow paying subscribers to comment on site. This is likely to deter trolls, and helps publishers keep a handle on moderation. Sanjay Sindhwani, CEO of Indian Express Digital, has previously acknowledged that “if packaged well, publishers can extract good value from comments by bringing out good ones and promoting healthy conversations with limited resources”. 

Thankfully, technology exists that can work in tandem with publishers to keep their comments sections home to constructive discussion. Perspective uses machine learning models to score the perceived impact a comment might have on a conversation. Developers and publishers can use this score to give real time feedback to commenters, help moderators do their job, and allow readers to more easily find relevant information. If you’re looking at interactivity methods to increase engagement and time spent, consider implementing Perspective. 

The aforementioned University of Texas study strongly suggests that publishers’ reputations and pockets would benefit from an overhaul of their comments sections. As Bassey Etim, Community Editor at The New York Times puts it, “The best thing you can do for a community is to actively show people that somebody at the organization is listening. The more you do on that end, the less intense moderation you need to have.”