Reader comments are a powerful part of online journalism these days.
That’s why we read them every day, knowing that within the conversations are good ideas for future stories, different or opposing points of view, or insightful commentary on a local news issue (a sampling of which we print twice a week in an Opinion page roundup).
We don’t take reader comments for granted, because we know their power to both build and destroy the online community that is growing around our stories.
Two recent examples in our newsroom come to mind.
This month, on a nearly nightly basis hundreds of South Jersey residents have flocked to the beach in the hopes of watching a NASA rocket launch from Wallops Island, Va.
Meanwhile, an even larger audience has tuned in nightly to watch Press meteorologist Dan Skeldon report on the hoped-for launches live on Facebook. For more than a thousand folks, Dan’s nightly reporting has become a must-watch event, driven by Dan’s thorough and entertaining reporting and determination.
But the broadcast is fascinating to me for another reason. The behavior of the audience makes me think of a loud, raucous living room in which everyone watching is not just contributing to the story, but a part of it. The names pop up in rapid succession as people tuning in ask Dan a question or joke about the biting insects swarming him. Still others stop to say “hi” to someone they know coming online.
It’s a wonderful, chaotic but still somehow cozy scene. Watch it and you’ll understand the amazing, untapped potential for journalism to create not just stories, but a sense of community.
For all that power, we know we have to be present moderating comments if we’re to build the type of online community where diverse voices can be heard and disagreements don’t devolve into disrespect.
This past March, we published a story on an Atlantic City woman struggling to feed her extended family on a limited income as part of our “Growing Up Hungry” series. Several commenters attacked the woman as an unfit parent. Others rushed in to help and the woman who was being criticized responded to the unrelenting attacks.
That day, the trolls won and we disabled the comments.
And then we went to work. A group of Press editors searched for best practices of how to foster this type of online community.
We reshaped our expectations for comments, which we spell out at the end of every story. We also discussed best ways to respond to comments, emphasizing the need for both editors and reporters to engage with audiences when possible.
We’ll be training our newsroom this summer and you’ll soon see journalists’ comments more often on their articles, asking for comments or other suggestions for story possibilities.
The strategy is a simple one, but it will lead to more conversations. And that will only help build the community.
Having a strong community react around the stories we write represents, more than anything I’ve seen in recent years, that decades-old ideal of “community journalism.”
And that’s our goal.
W.F. Keough is managing editor.