The Greeley Tribune (Colorado) suspended its website’s unruly user comments threads in late April, and now we’ve learned that user comments could remain turned off for much longer. In fact, Carson City, Nevada-based Swift Communications, which owns the Tribune, also is keeping user comments shut down on its other newspaper sites, which include the Vail Daily and Aspen Times in Colorado, and a number of other papers across the American West.
Executives at Swift concluded that resources should not be invested in comments — and therefore there is no rush to reinstate user comments — unless they can be made to generate revenue
The Digital News Test Kitchen, which is working with the Tribune and Swift on a research project led by this author to devise ways to rein in the sometimes-ugly and nasty nature of user comments on newspaper websites, recently learned that Swift will not revive user comments on its newspapers’ websites until the company decides on and implements a new content management system (CMS) to serve all the sites. Our liaison at Swift has reported that company management is unsure how long it will take to implement the CMS, but it could be as late as early 2013 before comments return, or possibly late 2012. Swift expects to initiate installation of the new CMS in 2012.
In an era when user comments are ubiquitous on news websites, and especially newspaper sites, this puts Swift’s news properties outside of the mainstream, to be sure. And in a further break with convention, the company has informed us that at most of its news websites, comments as well as some content will be behind a paywall when comments are allowed to return along with the new web publishing system. (Its resort news sites such as Vail and Aspen most likely will not have a paywall.)
The News-Review, a Swift publication in Roseburg, Oregon, already has implemented such a “subscription” system which puts most but not all news content behind a paywall. Prices for the News-Review subscriptions range from $14.20 a month for an “All Access Pass” (print delivery, website access, and e-edition), to $7.95 per month for a digital-only subscription (website access and e-edition); a print-only subscription costs $10.25 per month.
The News-Review rates may be an indication of what prices will be like for the Greeley Tribune and other sites. You can find more pricing information here and get an idea about the extent to which news content will be behind a paywall by visiting the News-Review site. (That website does not currently require a paid subscription to comment on articles that are freely available to all, but user registration is required.)
Swift’s movement toward a paywall or subscription model for most of its news websites also follows in the wake of an internal study showing that Swift news sites’ key traffic metrics did not move significantly following the removal of user comment. Executives at Swift concluded that resources should not be invested in comments — and therefore there is no rush to reinstate user comments — unless they can be made to generate revenue.
Swift was kind enough to share some metrics gathered before and after user comments were turned off at the Greeley Tribune site. Here are results for the local market (i.e., web visitors from the Greeley area). The green shaded columns are after website comments were shut down.
= (denotes no change) … +++ (denotes dramatic change) … ++ (denotes significant change) … + (denotes moderate change)
Here are results for all visitors to the site (local and non-local):
The study also found that 33% of Greeley respondents strongly agreed with the statement, “I consider reader comments to be an essential feature of this website,” but that 54.3% of respondents never leave a comment on the site.
Clearly, there are some interesting results here. While the changes following the removal of user comments in late April are less drastic among all visitors, there was a significant drop in time spent on articles in the audience from the local market, as well as unique visitors, page-views, and visits to the website as a whole (though these are less likely to have a causal relationship to the presence or absence of user comments on articles).
But perhaps the most interesting statistic here is the disparity between respondents who strongly agree that comments were an essential feature of the site (33% of locals) and the low level of participation by respondents. This appears to confirm a recent Ad Age Survey that found similar results. However, the Ad Age article warned against taking this as a reproach toward comment sections:
If you look at the future news consumers — Millennials and Gen-Xers — you start to see a very different picture. Younger millennials (18- to 24-year-olds) are three times as likely as those 55 and older to say that engagement tools will make them more likely to visit a site. … If media want to attract the readers who will be reading them in some media or another in five, 10 and 15 years, they’d better be investing in the tools to engage them the way they want to be engaged now.”
That’s why, despite the ambiguous study results, I can’t help but wince at the notion that a whole family of publications will be abandoning user comments outright until some indeterminate point in the future. Part of the success of the Internet over traditional media is that it permits a level of discourse that was absent from the “top-down” media of old, and this conversational character is built into the Internet’s DNA (pictures “speak” with text, text “speaks” with video, comments “speak” to stories, etc). Instead of shying away from these engagement tools or thinking of them as expendable, publications should embrace them and learn to use them effectively.
The Digital News Test Kitchen has been intrigued by the Greeley Tribune’s comment woes since they were suspended in late April of this year. I have spent a bulk of the summer looking for potential solutions to the issue of hostile commenting environments on news sites such as the Tribune’s. Though the problem is not an easy fix, I believe that a flexible and sophisticated third-party comment system in addition to proper community-management techniques could greatly assist online news providers in creating a more civil commenting culture. A report on my findings will be available soon, published on this website.
This is such a sticky problem and one that seems almost impossible to solve: If you create a real-name convention, you discourage comments. If you simply allow screen names, the trolls come out. I don't like not having the comment function anymore on our newspaper, but I have to say I'm also relieved at not having to pore over these damn things several times a day to delete the nasties (and then, often enough, getting emails from them wanting to fight over it). Typically they would accuse me of deleting their comment because I didn't agree with what they said, and they never bought the explanation that it had to do with how they said it. It's true that with a new CMS on its way (yippee!) it doesn't make sense for us to implement something new on what will soon be our old website platform. Hopefully something will present itself in the interim that makes sense for our readers and our company.
In the meantime, I'm happy to report our letters to the editor count is way up.
Alex Miller, managing editor
Summit Daily News, Frisco