The first letter I received as Readers’ Editor asked why Scroll did not have a facility for readers to post comments on articles. And one of the first mentions of me in social media called Scroll “a bunch of jokers” for appointing a Readers’ Editor when readers could not have their say on what was published.
Clearly, some readers feel that there is something missing in Scroll. The absence of a "Comments" box below or alongside every article therefore seems worth discussing in the Readers’ Editor’s first column of substance.
The Comments box appears to be ubiquitous in news sites on the net. Nothing like it existed before the net. It gives all readers the freedom to write their views on anything and everything that has been published. They can also converse with each other on the issue that has been written up. At times they can even converse with the writers. With the arrival of the Comments box, it seemed as if the walls separating readers from web sites had been brought down.
Every major news site in India offers the opportunity for readers to post comments. The volumes can be enormous. We do not know the numbers at Indian publications but The Guardian of the UK says it receives more than 50,000 comments every day.
But there have been a few hiccups on the way. Anyone who has read comments on any web site knows that there is a lot of good stuff – and very bad stuff out there. There are posts completely disconnected from the subject of the article commented on. There is abuse of the author. There is abuse of others participating in the discussion. Web sites in most cases permit anonymity and behind this screen, small groups of trolls seem to wreak havoc. There is often venom hurled at individuals and groups. All this may not be the norm, but it is certainly not the norm either to always see civil and thoughtful discussions in the Comments section.
Of course, all this can be dealt with by moderators and self-policing. But that requires news sites to have in place moderators whose only job it will be to moderate and pull the offensive posts. The bigger news sites have entire teams dedicated to just this task. A casual reading of Indian news sites shows that moderation is absent or very light – abuse is common.
Is all this why Scroll has decided against the Comments facility? I asked Naresh Fernandes, the editor of Scroll, about this. He said that after studying the experience of sites around the world, it was a considered decision by Scroll not to have the Comments facility. In his words:
“It was clear that comments sections don’t add to the conversation around an issue. They do help publications in that some readers end up spending more time on the site debating issues. But there’s an adverse selection of respondents: only those with the most extreme views tend to comment.”
He added that there was also the “practical problem” that as a small organisation they do not have the staff required to be effective in moderating comments.
Actually, it looks like Scroll is not an exception in this regard. In the US, a number of major news and magazine sites have begun to do away with the Comments feature. Popular Science did in 2013, Reuters did in 2013 so did The Week the same year, and most recently, NPR.org shut it down last month. (For a discussion of this trend and a review readers can look at this recent article.)
The reasons for this trend appear to be common to all such sites. Too high a cost to bear for offering this opportunity to a small number of readers. Too much abuse, hate and vacuous comment. And too much of an effort required to moderate quality. NPR.org said that in July it received 491,000 comments but these were from only 19,400 readers– just 0.06% of their 33 million unique visitors that month.
There is another important reason for why some sites have moved away the Comments facility. Social media appears to be replacing, if it has not already, the Comments box as the forum for meaningful interaction. Facebook and Twitter are now where all the more substantive discussions are taking place. Facebook, in particular, has self-policing features that keeps the trolls out and the thoughtful in. The editor of Scroll says they have noticed much the same thing about discussion on articles on this site.
No doubt, some of the biggest and most popular news sites in India and abroad continue to have the Comments facility. However, on balance, there is something to be said for Scroll’s policy of not having the Comments feature and encouraging readers to use the Letters to the Editor channel.
It is not as if the decision not to have comments at Scroll is set in stone. Naresh Fernandes says that the decision is constantly reviewed.
Keeping readers engaged
Globally as well, news sites keep looking for better and better ways to engage with and involve readers. It would seem that Community discussions rather than Comments sometimes offer more scope for interesting discussions. Sadly, the quality of discussions behind paywalls seems to be better – such as those at the Financial Times where subscribers participate in discussions. There are also attempts to automate procedures to identify the “good” commenters and keep out the “bad” ones and thus deal with the twin issues of the time and cost of moderation. One such is the experiment in the Coral project though I do not see how anything can replace moderation by humans.
Scroll relies on its weekly Letters to the Editor pages (posted every Sunday) to attract reader participation. (Somewhat unusually for a digital publication, it mentions the Letters page and the address to write to at the end of every article.) It certainly does publish a large number. Last Sunday, I counted 30 letters, and that was at the end of a week during which it had published an extra edition of Letters which had been devoted to responses to Harsh Mander’s article on Pakistan.
The Editor says they more or less publish all the letters they receive – other than the abusive and the incoherent.
I would suggest two changes to the format and frequency of the Letters to the Editor pages to give them a greater place on this site.
One, Scroll uploads 40-50 articles every day, so it is only reasonable that it considers posting letters every day rather than just once a week. Letters posted a week later can lose their timeliness. Also when readers see a bunch of letters every day they are likely to write in more often as well. Two, the Letters to the Editor pages need their own place on the menu on the top of Scroll’s home page. The Letters page is the only one available for the readers and it seems only right that it be prominently displayed on the menu, so that readers can readily access it. The Editor says that there are indeed plans to give the Letters to the Editor page a place on the menu.
Readers are bound to have their views on this issue and many other aspects of Scroll. They are welcome to write to firstname.lastname@example.org.