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Guardian digital chief: Killing off comments ‘a monumental mistake’

Submitted by on February 3, 2015 – 10:32 am 4 Comments | 15,072 views

Aron Pilhofer ii

The Guardian’s executive editor for digital has described the trend among some news sites of switching off reader comments as a “monumental mistake” – saying user interaction is a “huge resource we are largely ignoring”.

Delivering the opening keynote at the news:rewired conference, in London this morning, Aron Pilhofer said sites such as Buzzfeed and Upworthy were “quite frankly eating our lunch” – and news organisations need to do much more in the areas of community engagement and user analytics.

Pilhofer – who joined from the New York Times last year – said he believes “fundamentally” that newsrooms can make a successful digital transition, adding: “We are all in this together.”

‘Journalism should be a conversation’

Reuters recently announced it was switching off comments under its stories – and other publishers including The Chicago Sun-Times, tech site Re/Code and Popular Science magazine have all done the same.

Pilhofer said:

I feel very strongly that digital journalism needs to be a conversation with readers. This is one, if not the most important area of emphasis that traditional newsrooms are actually ignoring.

You see site after site killing comments and moving away from community – that’s a monumental mistake. Any site that moves away from comments is a plus for sites like ours. Readers need and deserve a voice. They should be a core part of your journalism.

He gave the example of GuardianWitness, a user-generated project on the Guardian site that invites readers to contribute video, pictures and stories to “assignments”.

“These are the kind of things we should be doing more of. It’s a huge resource we are largely ignoring [as an industry]”, he said.

Pilhofer added:

Sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy are quite frankly eating our lunch. Often editors talk about them in mystical ways. There’s nothing magic about it. It’s an incredibly targeted, brilliantly designed product that has a very clear audience in mind. They know how to get content to their target audience and they know when they’ve succeeded and failed. I am not saying in any way that the Guardian or the New York Times should become more like Buzzfeed in terms of content. We need to understand a whole lot more about how Buzzfeed does what it does.

Better analytics

Part of that understanding comes from developing better newsroom analytics. Blogging platform Medium, for example, has begun measuring “total reading time“.

Borrowing the terminology used by Medium to explain its move, Pilhofer said:

Every newsroom should have some not-so-bullshit metrics that provide an indication of its health. I think this is where newsrooms have to go. We have to become much more sophisticated about analytics and metrics. We have to get better.

The Guardian has an internal analytics tool called Ophan which “blew my mind”, Pilhofer said, and it “gives journalists real-time access to “just about any metric you could ever want”.

‘We need to move forward together’

Pilhofer concluded:

When you talk about digital transformation a lot of the time it ends up becoming, unfortunately, sometimes a divisive topic. It becomes print v digital and that’s nonsense. We are all in this together. The entire newsroom needs to be involved in this – everyone. We are incredibly lucky to be in an industry in which great reporting, editing, and storytelling is as valuable – arguably more valuable – in the digital world than on traditional platforms. We need to move forward together and I believe fundamentally that we can actually do it.

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  • Dave Davies

    I agree. More so this comment could have a comment though. 😉

  • Tracy

    Yes, it is a mistake. Comments are content. Some of our comment threads are better than the story preceding them – for informational value, not entertainment value. The publishers who complain they don’t have the resources to moderate them are saying they don’t WANT to devote resources to moderating them. Think of it in a new way. Have reporters accountable for handling the comments on their stories. Really doesn’t take that much time. Most comments can be evaluated in a quick glance. And you might just find a followup angle – or something that needs correcting – having someone not associated with your work managing the reaction to it is a mistake too.

  • alwaysthink

    The problem is at some sites the comments become unreadable when they are bombarded with out of control nasty nonsense comments from an army of trolls.

    At some sites it seems these people with the nasty comments may even be offshore in boiler rooms with a list of talking points and nasty phrases. The sole purpose is disruption of civil discussion of issues and policies.

  • Vahs

    Heerme. Com