Killing News Comments Only Solidified Google, Facebook Dominance

We’ve talked a lot about how the trend du jour in online media circles is to ditch the news comment section, then condescendingly pretend this is because the website just really values user relationships. ReCode, NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg, Popular Science and more have all proclaimed that they just love their on-site communities so much, they’ll no longer allow them to speak. Of course what these sites often can’t admit is that they were too lazy or cheap to cultivate their communities, can’t seem to monetize quality discourse, and don’t really like people pointing out story errors in such a conspicuous location.

Many of these same editors and outlets will (justly) complain how Google and Facebook have hoovered up online ad revenue to the point where operating an independent media outlet is a financial minefield. Only occasionally will you see somebody realize that the process of outsourcing all on-site discourse to social media by killing news comments contributed to the overall problem. Sure, outsourcing the hassles of moderation may have saved you a little time and money, but driving the on-site community away from your website to giant social media platforms contributed to the very dominance you’re now railing against.

That’s something Simon Owens recently did a good job of pointing out in a piece about how killing on-site news comments is a “colossal mistake” that has directly contributed to the social media domination many editors now lament:

Did comments sections invite trollish behavior? Yes. Did moderating that behavior require both editorial and technical resources? Also yes. But deploying these resources was worth the cost, as it would have resulted in publishers maintaining a stronger relationship with their readerships. Instead, much of the news media became commoditized, with news outlets placing more emphasis on drive-by Facebook traffic than serving loyal readers. In pursuing this strategy, publishers placed more distance between themselves and their users, and so they were ill-equipped when digital advertising models collapsed and platforms like Facebook siphoned off their traffic.

While you’d be hard-pressed to find many editors admit it, much of the assault on ye olde news comments was driven by a desire to return to the bygone era of “letters to the editor,” when outlets were able to carefully curate reader response and mute particularly pointed criticism. But if these editors cared even an iota as much about “conversation” and “community” as they claimed, they’d realize that deleting your on-site communities sends a very clear message to these users that they really don’t actually matter. At least not outside obvious, easily-documented advertising metrics.

While many of these same editors were quick to claim that low comment engagement made the hassles of moderation not worth it, Owens does a good job deconstructing that claim and pointing out the benefits of a small but loyal cadre of on-site fans:

Let’s be clear: even the publishers with the best comment moderation still only see a small percentage of their readers convert into on-site commenters. But let’s say only 5 percent of your readers choose to register and comment; those readers will punch far above their weight in terms of driving traffic and revenue to your site. Those are your chief evangelists, your repeat customers, your paying subscribers.

To understand how a small percentage of a publisher’s most loyal users can drive revenue growth, consider The New York Times. Currently, its digital subscribers only account for 3.6 percent of the newspaper’s monthly online audience, and yet that 3.6 percent drove over $ 400 million in subscription revenue in 2018. When you’re dealing with the scale of the internet, catering to your most engaged readers is worth the investment.

Unfortunately this was a lesson lost by many outlets as they shoveled their on-site fans into the maws of social media giants, only to turn around shortly thereafter to complain about Google and Facebook’s insurmountable domination.

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