Takeover of the trolls: how newspapers can shake off the haters

Troll

Trolls:  The bane of many a news site

As a former editor I know that one of the biggest daily headaches in the newsroom is reader comments on website stories and social media.

Got a controversial issue?  If so, you can guarantee it’ll be made ten times more controversial by the people behind the curtain of the web who have their say without saying who they are.

So with all the ‘trolling’, ‘hating’ and inane backbiting that can go on at the end of news reports, why allow comments at all?

Well, despite the problems they can cause, reader comments add value in a variety of ways:

– Allowing readers to comment on stories gives them ownership of an issue and therefore ownership of the newspaper title providing the stage for debate – in a sense it makes the news site more important to the readers – making them more likely to return.
– Reader comments sometimes give a human voice which couldn’t be shown in a story for whatever reason. Not all comments lack value, instead some can really shed light on how a story or issue has affected a real person. And sometimes this can allow for follow-up stories with that user too.
– Stories with comments, controversial or not, get more clicks and  hits than stories without. They generate discussion, debate and downright outrage, and all of that gets  other people clicking to read the unfolding drama. The most unlikely stories can find themselves at the top of the web hits list just because of the comments left by website users. Popular stories mean popular sites and more advertising revenue as a result.

Of  course, this all happens on news providers’ social media sites as well – but the beauty of website comments is  that they ‘belong’ to that newspaper. Those readers have made the effort to create an account and log in to that website in order to have their say – that effort is invaluable not only in terms of advertising revenue, but also in terms of loyalty; getting people to sign in almost allows a newspaper to claim that person as their own and, more than ever before, having loyal online readers is important.

So how can newspapers make the most of online comments and balance the headache of irrelevant or legally dodgy comments with the rewards of allowing readers a space to have their say?

One of the biggest factors causing problems for websites is the cloak of anonymity the internet provides. Allowing people to choose usernames which don’t reveal who they are means users feel they can be totally honest, therefore prompting more people to join the conversation. Unfortunately it also means many of those comments stray from the realms of honesty to something much more extreme – confrontational, angry, insulting and so OTT that their authors couldn’t possibly believe what they are writing…could they??

For this reason, according to a podcast featured on www.journalism.co.uk , the Chicago Sun Times and Reuters have both banned commenting from their websites and The Huffington Post now only allows people to sign in via social media – meaning their identity is more transparent. The latter solution sounds a great way around the issue – but social media does not necessarily garner comments of a higher quality. Currently links to stories on regional papers’ Facebook pages tend to generate more comments than stories on the news sites themselves due to the ease of interaction (users are usually logged into the social network already, removing the  obstacle to commenting). But even with user identities revealed, a lot of comments on newspaper social media sites are abusive or irrelevant and many also seem to be  uninformed – with people forming opinion without clicking through to see the full story on the website. While the latter would not be an issue if social media was the way into commenting on a news site, it is hard to see how the former issues would be different. And then of course there is the problem of ownership again – social media log ins, even onto a newspaper site, take the hits and loyalty value of that log in away from the news provider and back to the social media provider.

Most newspapers publish stories to allow ‘post moderated’ comments on their sites – meaning comments do not have to be checked by a moderator before they appear. Much of the time it seems comments left by the public are rarely looked at by journalists following publication and legally it’s only comments which are seen to be defamatory or legally unsound that need to be taken down. Dodgy comments are usually flagged up by website users rather than newspaper staff – and this again raises the issue of whose role it is to ‘police’ comments.  With the huge amount of work already resting at the feet of reporters in modern newsrooms the extra job of moderating online comments would be virtually impossible to manage.

In fact, it could be a full-time job checking and responding to online comments – but unfortunately this is a  position which most editors don’t have the budget to fill. Those who do have web editors usually have them tied up with troubleshooting, publishing and promotion – again time and money does not allow for a full-time web discussion moderator.

But, with more and more newspapers building their communities online rather than in print, perhaps this is a role that needs to be considered for the future. Turning the comments  from a one-way response into a conversation with the news provider can surely only strengthen that bond with readers – as already done by national titles like the Guardian. Taking a firm stance on policing the quality of comments would also show people what was expected and hopefully, in turn, generate comments with a greater value. There is opportunity, if managed correctly, for regional papers to become the social voice of the community they serve – providing discussion points and chairing the ensuing debate both on websites and social media. But this can only be done if managers recognise the value this could add to their product and invest in the staff to make the model work effectively.

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