There’s been a lot of debate recently about whether news sites should have comments. I’m firmly in the pro camp because when done right, I believe comments can add as much to a story as a well-shot video or infographic. But good ones don’t happen by magic.

Part of the problem is that we presume that users know why there is an option to comment on stories. In theory, it’s a chance to set out an informed, balanced, well-written point of view, often accompanied by a personal experience, much like writing to the Letters page of a newspaper. But we don’t tell them that. We don’t say that we want the comments to be something that add to the journalism under which they sit. We leave them almost entirely to their own devices. As a result, lots of comments aren’t of huge value. And sometimes comments come in that clearly have value but need a little attention to make them really shine.

There was a good example of this last week when we had a piece on thetimes.co.uk by John Stewart about how he was abused at boarding school by his deputy headteacher. We received a long comment (NB: we pre-moderate all comments on the site) from a regular and well-regarded user of the site who seemed to suggest that her son had been abused whilst at public school. The comment was an extract from a letter sent by the user to a former employee at the school, was very long, and had references to people and places, some of whom we believed were identifiable, so we decided not to publish the comment straight away. But it clearly had merit and I decided to email her to explain why it hadn’t appeared yet.

The user (whose pseudonymous screenname I’ve blanked here although you can find it on thetimes.co.uk) replied within an hour or so to explain that she didn’t quite have time to write and edit such a long extract at the time she posted it. She added a little more detail to her story, meaning I was confident that it stacked up, and sent back the following reply (forgive the poor English in places, I was in a bit of a rush):

What I received back was a well-written and touching account of how the user believed her son was abused at public school and that it played a part in her son’s later depression and suicide. After names were removed, it formed the basis of the comment that appeared on the site in the afternoon and which I’ve published here:

The comment received 14 recommends (despite being posted late in the afternoon when the article went off the front page and therefore got less traffic) and a host of comments from other users thanking her for taking the time to write such an account. I think you’d agree that a┬ácomment like this adds so much to John’s piece and I’m glad we managed to publish it and get it read by other people.

But, having thought about it over the weekend, I realised we were somewhat lucky that events conspired as they did. For one, as a community team, we emailed the user rather than trashing the comment (a fate occasionally reserved for complex comments submitted at busy times). Also the user was prepared to take our advice on board and happy to edit the comment in order to get it published. On any other day, and with any other user and moderator combination, that might not have been the case and the comment would not have got published.

You might be left asking ‘If it’s down to the individual user and the person moderating, how do you increase the chances of this happening? How do you get users co-operating with the community team to squeeze the best out of a comment?’. I think it’s about taking the competition out of it. It’s not moderators versus users. It’s two sides of the community. And until people realise that both parties want the same outcome, comments like the one on John’s article will be rare. Contributions like that, ones that tell a story as well as a finely crafted video or meticulously designed infographic, just don’t happen by magic.