I really quite like comments on news stories and on Facebook too. We live in a world filled with trolls, haters and the like. Yes there are some despicable people out there who see using the Internet to sound off with vile comments directed at individuals as having no consequence – see the Malicious Communications Act for how those people are clearly on the wrong side of the law.
But online comments can regularly be an indicator of the strength of feeling about a local issue, raise a smile at a witty quip or reveal there is more to an issue than previously thought.
One of the things I wanted to do at getreading was increase the number of comments we were seeing on news stories. To me this shows our readers care about what we are producing and getting a chance to have their say. I am pleased to say since January the number of comments has seen a strong increases both on the site and on Facebook and Twitter.
How did we do this and what are the lessons from skirmishing below the line?
Asking a question generally gets a response. It’s like when you ask a question in a text message, the person on the other end feels more compelled to reply. We try where possible to ask at the end of a story what people think, but not in a bland catch all way. These have to be bespoke to each article as each topic demands a nuance to seeing what line is going to trigger that debate. The same with Facebook status, adding the question mark seems like a trigger a greater response. But don’t do it with everything or your readers will think an Australian has taken over their news feed.
Haters gonna hate. When the newspaper associated with the website has recently closed there are going to be people unhappy about this. Unhappy about story choices and all sorts of things. Reply to the ones which are well thought out and demanding of a debate. Ignoring others for the hate-filled rants that they are sends its own message.
Questions. If your audience ask questions of your journalism, take the time to respond. How did you…. Why did you… These kind of queries I reply to regularly.
Use the comments. When we get a lot of comments about an issue we publish them. We’ve taken the listicle format and applied X things you said about (insert issue) to see a really encouraging response. People like seeing their comments featured and other readers like us plucking out a selection so they don’t have to wade through a 132 comment long thread.
Could a commenter be your next blogger? We had someone who was a keen letter writer and commented about certain issues regularly. After he emailed a complaint about the lack of a letters page we asked him what topic he wanted to write about. A guest article about whether Wokingham’s road network needs to look to Europe for inspiration…
Go where the debate is. There’s a strong local forum in Reading which is well moderated and has a committed and passionate group of users. I try to keep an eye on debates here and like many local media outlets we see our stories used as the catalyst for discussions. Sometimes there are queries about our stories or our journalism is called into question. I regularly respond to these. Not ashamed to admit we often pick up story tips through here too.
Beware the screengrab. I often think about how would this response look if I screengrabbed it and presented it out of context. You will be surprised what you decide to say with this in your thoughts. Asking a reader to email or call you to discuss something can regularly defuse a situation.
Shouldn’t you have someone to do this for you? I won’t name who asked me this but there was an implication I should be too busy (in meetings?) to be responding to comments. As publisher of a local news website to not be sleeves rolled up and responding to the people who read the content me and the team work tirelessly to produce would feel like letting them down. If someone cares enough to comment even if I can just take a second to thumbs up them on a Facebook comment or up vote them in the comments lets them know we are listening.
And isn’t that one of the most important things local media should be doing, listening?