Not so long ago, comments on many news sites were just a way of generating revenue. Lots of comments yielded higher page traffic through repeat visits and time spent on page as well as additional SEO benefit (Disqus did some research in 2011 which summarised these long held ideas). For some news organisations that’s still the case and articles are written with the aim of getting people commenting in order to drive traffic. Over time, readers (because they’re not stupid) have begun to understand why it was that this happened.

But as news organisations have adopted different models, the role of comments has changed. For The Times and The Sunday Times especially, there’s no need to write articles just to attract comments. News stories aren’t commissioned to anger and opinions aren’t created out of nowhere just to rile readers.

But no-one thought to tell those that comment.

I know this because there was interesting comment yesterday on Matthew Parris’ notebook, a section of which was on Robert Mugabe. Matthew argued that, for all his detracting qualities, the former Zimbabwean President was a visionary and an impressive leader. This led to some comments questioning whether Matthew thought this was true but interestingly also about whether his piece was a ploy to court page views.

Knowing that this wasn’t the case, I decided to explain:

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Before this comment, I had presumed that someone who subscribed to The Times and The Sunday Times knew that a paywall changed the nature of our journalism and turned comments from page view fodder for revenue to a more meaningful mode of feedback. Foolishly I presumed readers had a knowledge of the industry that some journalists don’t have, let alone readers.

I was made to feel worse when I realised it was like a lawyer asking if I knew the latest case laws and what they meant to me on a day-to-day basis. Without being told explicitly, of course, I wouldn’t know what legal precedents had recently been enacted. So why would commenters realise the shift? In that sense, Stephen’s comment was a real eye opener.

Every now and then someone has a pop at comments and how they’re of little value and produce nothing but bile. Matthew himself recently questioned what would be needed to improve the tone of comments under his articles in a piece for the Spectator. My question after yesterday is: how can we expect commenters to contribute anything of value when they think we’re all about driving page views to satisfy an advertiser? Stephen perhaps understands it better than before but I bet there are plenty who still don’t.