NPR’s On the Media and ‘Comments on Comments’

As I’ve mentioned before, National Public Radio’s (US) On the Media is part of my weekly podcast diet. It was an interesting look at three different views on internet comments on articles and radio programmes. Host Bob Garfield interviewed This American Life’s Ira Glass, ‘professional writer and critic’ Lee Siegel and Roanoke Times editor Carole Tarrant. It spawned a round of very interesting blog posts and comments – Comments on comments on comments, as Jeff Jarvis put it. It soon spilled out onto Twitter from with an interesting discussion between Jay Rosen and Kevin Marks.

Kevin Marks comments on NPR's On the Media

Jeff says:

But I’ve argued that we’re looking at commenting the wrong way. We spend so much of our time playing wack-a-mole with the dirty little creatures who dig up the garden that we miss the fruits and flowers. It is far more productive to curate the good people and good comments — whether they occur under an article or, better yet, via links — than it is to obsessively try to clean up life, which can’t help but be messy.

The tsk-tskers treat the web as if it is a media property and they judge it by its worst: Look what that nasty web is doing to our civilization! But, of course, that’s as silly as judging publishing by the worst of what is published.

And I have to agree with Jeff that it’s a bit rich for Gawker to be arguing against comments on newspaper sites. On the Media linked to the post, and Gawker sounds like many in the newspaper industry who pine for a simpler time when newspapers enjoyed a near monopoly when it came to people’s time and attention. Channeling their inner newspaper nostalgist, Gawker says:

Newspapers have more important things to do than worry about comments—like, say, report the stories that blogs so desperately need in their 24-7 quest for content! After all, blogs are often not equipped to regularly break the news, and we need content to chew on.

Of course, comments are OK on Gawker because they’re a blog, they argue. Might the mighty Gawker be a suffering a crisis in ComScore with all the competition?

Of the three points of view, I almost said Amen out loud as I travelled on the Tube when Roanoke Times editor Carole Tarrant said, that she was surprised that newspaper are still having this conversation.

It’s not the Wild West. I don’t believe in putting comments on every story. … I thought we had this (conversation) in 2002, and papers are getting in this conversation and acting surprised that there is this ugliness out there.

She then goes on and lays out a considered approach to comments and communities online. After the Virginia Tech shooting, they originally put up their standard message board. They took it down when it devolved into a loud discussion about gun rights and replaced it with a tribute site from (in the interest of disclosure, a good friend of mine works for Legacy), a site that powers the obituaries of several newspaper sites. The message boards are moderated by, and she said that the tribute site is still active.

Derek Powazek also wrote an excellent post criticising the On the Media segment. The main problem he saw with the piece was that Bob Garfield “lumps all commenters, and commenting systems, together. On the web, not all comments are created equal”. He says:

Yes, if you open your site to comments from people who do not have to register or create an account, you’ll get a lot of unfiltered craziness. That’s because you’re not doing your job as a host. Imagine a newspaper of infinite pages with no editors where anyone with a keyboard could contribute. Sounds fun to me, but not a recipe for consistent thoughtfulness. …

The story completely missed moderation queues, reputation management systems, or any of the hundreds of comment systems built over the last decade to address this very problem.

I’m with Derek. The media never focus on positive communities online, but it’s not just the media’s coverage of online communities that needs to improve. Most online communities hosted by media companies could use some improvement, but as Derek points out, there are tools and a lot of experience out there. Unfortunately, most of it is either outside of media organisations or was lost when digital departments at news organisations were gutted after the crash.

Some of the solution to improving online communities and conversations on websites is using the best technology, but there are also content and culture issues to be aware of. Kevin Marks shares wisdom and lessons learned about online spaces. For people who are part of internet culture, some of this is well known, but it’s not common knowledge in media companies. (I’m fortunate to work with one of the best in the business, Meg Pickard, our head of communities at the Guardian.) Kevin highlights some great work done in terms of online communities and some common traits of those communities that don’t work:

The communities that fail, whether dying out from apathy or being overwhelmed by noise, are the ones that don’t have someone there cherishing the conversation, setting the tone, creating a space to speak, and rapidly segregating those intent on damage.

News websites were never a ‘build it and they will come’ proposition, especially in today’s distributed world, and in the rush to build communities so that they will come, news oganisations are building the spaces but sometimes not preparing for when people come. Get enough people together online or offline, and not all of the experience will be positive or pleasant. The response shouldn’t be to shut down the community and bar the door.

News organisations need to look outside of their immediate area of experience and find communities that have worked and learn from them. This isn’t an area of blue-sky experimentation. There is a lot of experience and expertise out there. With a lot of this, news orgs will just have to look beyond other news orgs. There’s a big world out there on the internet, but it’s not always scary.

UPDATE: As Jay Rosen says via Twiter: “Jeff Jarvis tells Bob Garfield to join the conversation, and points out how many people online did the homework he didn’t.” Jeff highlights not only posts but excellent contributions from Doc Searls and Tish Grier in his comments. There is a lot of history to be learned from, and news organisations don’t need to re-invent the wheel or feel that they are starting from scratch.

In defence of news orgs, I not only believe but have said publicly, that when the media adds community features, they need to be ready to manage that community from day one because they already are dealing with large amounts of traffic. They often run into teething problems that most communities don’t reach until much later.

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