Why news sites need comments

Audiences will hang out on a site for hours each day if there are interesting people to talk to. Social platforms like Facebook understand this, so they build tools that let people talk and share, and invest in huge teams to moderate and keep the content engaging. Facebook’s business would disappear tomorrow if people stopped using it to talk to each other.

Like social platforms, news organizations are also largely ad-supported businesses. But news sites haven’t built the same massive, highly-targetable user bases that companies like Facebook have. When tech and moderation resources are in short supply, comment sections become neglected, unwelcoming, un-delightful spaces. But if news orgs want to compete with companies like Facebook for audiences and advertisers, they need to figure out how to keep loyal audiences coming directly to them for both news and conversation.

The logic behind turning comments off is circular — sites can’t afford to invest in comments, so comments are terrible, so only terrible people participate, so therefore comments are terrible and humanity is doomed.

But we know what’s possible with strong on-page communities; Gawker (RIP), HuffPost, and The Atlantic (in particular Ta-Nehisi Coates) all had incredible on-page communities that added to the experience and arguably helped build their sites. The problem is scale: what works to keep a small community high-quality and fun doesn’t work as it gets larger. And the web is all about scale. To go big, you need software that’s designed to scale… not just on a technical level, but on a human level.

To go big, you need software that’s designed to scale… not just on a technical level, but on a human level.

News sites need comments because they need people, and more than anything, people want to connect with other people. If you can create a great place for people to connect (and extinguish the garbage fires caused by old-fashioned moderation), your comment section can be a driver of growth and revenue, the same way conversations drive growth and revenue for social platforms. All that’s missing is the right set of tools.