NPR gives up on comments

NPR is the latest news organization to give up on the promise of intelligent discourse online, at least for now.

The network is announcing today that it will eliminate comments on its website, currently handled via the Disqus module, the same module used on this blog.

One can hardly blame NPR. The comments section there, like so many, was a cesspool of the same-old, same-old fights on different days. With a few exceptions — very few exceptions — their inclusion offered nothing of value to readers looking for intelligent perspective.

That doesn’t surprise too many people on the Internet, and yet, it’s public radio, where intelligence is supposed to be the attraction and the forte of its audience.

NPR isn’t exactly saying the quality of commenting is the reason behind today’s announcement. It says people have gone off to NPR accounts on Facebook and Twitter to hold their “discussions.”

NPR’s ombudsman, Elizabeth Jensen, describes a numbers game for the decision.

When NPR analyzed the number of people who left at least one comment in both June and July, the numbers showed an even more interesting pattern: Just 4,300 users posted about 145 comments apiece, or 67 percent of all comments for the two months.

More than half of all comments in May, June and July combined came from a mere 2,600 users. The conclusion: NPR’s commenting system — which gets more expensive the more comments that are posted, and in some months has cost NPR twice what was budgeted — is serving a very, very small slice of its overall audience.

It’s not possible to tell who those commenters are; some users comment anonymously. But there are some clues that indicate those who comment are not wholly representative of the overall NPR audience: They overwhelmingly comment via the desktop (younger users tend to find via mobile), and a Google estimate suggested that the commenters were 83 percent male, while overall users were just 52 percent male, Montgomery said.

When viewed purely from the perspective of whether the comments were fostering constructive conversations, the change should come as no surprise. The number of complaints to NPR about the current comment system has been growing—complaints that comments were censored by the outside moderators, and that commenters were behaving inappropriately and harassing other commenters.

Where it went wrong for NPR is where it goes wrong for most news organizations. The organization, itself, via reporters or editors, refused — and probably weren’t encouraged — to engage with the audience. As I’ve stated here numerous times, people can pollute a comments section in a hurry when they think nobody is listening. And unless newspeople listen and engage, what’s the point?

Online comments are content and, as such, need the same sort of editorial oversight and standards as the rest of a website’s content. But many organizations are reluctant to expend the energy to guide conversations, keep them civil, and provide content that’s worth reading. Who can blame them? In a time of diminished resources, they’ve got other things to do — the news, for example.

Jensen notes — correctly — that the New York Times is consistently able to do this.

Other organizations such as The New York Times manage to keep their comments relatively civil. But they use heavy in-house human moderation that costs far more than NPR currently spends on its outsourced system, according to NPR executives who are familiar with the numbers.

The Times also opens only 10 percent of its articles for comments (but is working to increase that percentage), and keeps the comment threads open for just one week. NPR currently allows comments on all articles for two weeks. Maybe someday, NPR will engage the audience again.

Maybe next time things will be different.

There was the brimming idealism when in 2008 NPR announced it was moving from discussion boards to individual story commenting, telling readers: “We are providing a forum for infinite conversations on Our hopes are high. We hope the conversations will be smart and generous of spirit.

We hope the adventure is exciting, fun, helpful and informative.” And, “NPR is a non-profit. We are not launching the project to get more ‘hits’ that will make more money. We are doing it because it is the respectful thing to do for the NPR community.”

Just two years later, Andy Carvin, then NPR’s senior product manager for online communities, talked about adding professional moderators to what had been largely staff efforts to keep the conversations free of spam and trolls.

Moderation got more aggressive in 2011, and pre-moderation of comments for news stories was tried in 2012. Yet another system was adopted later that year. I was not at NPR during those years, but it appears to me that NPR cannot be faulted for not trying to find a workable solution.
That search will continue, NPR executives told me. In the past year, NPR has investigated newer moderation systems that promise to add more civility to the comment discussions.

One of those may eventually be introduced, Montgomery said, but nothing is imminent. But NPR is actively looking for other ways to use the website space that the comments currently occupy, including finding a way to connect the audience to local member stations.

But not everyone deserves a microphone or an audience. Radio stations acknowledge this on their talk shows; that’s why they employ call screeners to separate the valuable perspective from the noise. And unless news organizations are willing to demand a similar standard online, they’re right to do what they are basically doing: hanging up on their audience, which was given every opportunity to prove it could handle its responsibility.

(h/t: Julia Schrenkler)