NPR is making an announcement today that is sure to upset a loyal core of its audience, those who comment online at NPR.org (including those who comment on this blog). As of Aug. 23, online comments, a feature of the site since 2008, will be disabled.
With the change, NPR joins a long list of other news organizations choosing to move conversations about its journalism off its own site and instead rely on social media to pick up the slack. But NPR stands for National Public Radio, so a decision to limit "public" input at NPR.org seems especially jarring.
The decision should not be taken to mean that NPR does not value audience engagement, said Scott Montgomery, managing editor for digital news. "We've been working on audience engagement, user connections, in a variety of ways, for many, many years, certainly going back to even before the internet. It is a part of public media. It's important to us," he told me.
But at this point, he argued, the audience itself has decided for NPR, choosing to engage much more via social media, primarily on Twitter and Facebook, rather than in the NPR.org comments section.
"We've reached the point where we've realized that there are other, better ways to achieve the same kind of community discussion around the issues we raise in our journalism," he said, with money, and spending it efficiently, part of the issue. More than 5 million people each month engage with NPR on Twitter, compared to just a fraction of that number in the NPR.org comments. "In relative terms, as we set priorities, it becomes increasingly clear that the market has spoken. This is where people want to engage with us. So that's what we're going to emphasize," he said.
I did find the numbers quite startling. In July, NPR.org recorded nearly 33 million unique users, and 491,000 comments. But those comments came from just 19,400 commenters, Montgomery said. That's 0.06 percent of users who are commenting, a number that has stayed steady through 2016.
When NPR analyzed the number of people who left at least one comment in both June and July, the numbers showed an even more interesting pattern: Just 4,300 users posted about 145 comments apiece, or 67 percent of all NPR.org comments for the two months. More than half of all comments in May, June and July combined came from a mere 2,600 users. The conclusion: NPR's commenting system — which gets more expensive the more comments that are posted, and in some months has cost NPR twice what was budgeted — is serving a very, very small slice of its overall audience.
It's not possible to tell who those commenters are; some users comment anonymously. But there are some clues that indicate those who comment are not wholly representative of the overall NPR audience: They overwhelmingly comment via the desktop (younger users tend to find NPR.org via mobile), and a Google estimate suggested that the commenters were 83 percent male, while overall NPR.org users were just 52 percent male, Montgomery said.
When viewed purely from the perspective of whether the comments were fostering constructive conversations, the change should come as no surprise. The number of complaints to NPR about the current comment system has been growing—complaints that comments were censored by the outside moderators, and that commenters were behaving inappropriately and harassing other commenters.
Mike Durio, of Phoenix, seemed to sum it up in an email to my office back in April. "Have you considered doing away with the comments sections, or tighter moderation?" he wrote. "The comments have devolved into the Punch-and-Judy-Fest of moronic, un-illuminating observations and petty insults I've seen on other pretty much every other Internet site that allows comments." He added, "This is not in keeping with NPR's take-a-step-back, take-a-deep-breath reporting," and noted, "Now, thread hijacking and personal insults are becoming the stock in trade. Frequent posters use the forums to duke it out with one another."
A user named Mary, from Raleigh, N.C., wrote to implore: "Remove the comments section from your articles. The rude, hateful, racist, judgmental comments far outweigh those who may want to engage in some intelligent sideline conversation about the actual subject of the article. I am appalled at the amount of 'free hate' that is found on a website that represents honest and unbiased reporting such as NPR. What are you really gaining from all of these rabid comments other than proof that a sad slice of humanity that preys on the weak while spreading their hate?"
Other organizations such as The New York Times manage to keep their comments relatively civil. But they use heavy in-house human moderation that costs far more than NPR currently spends on its outsourced system, according to NPR executives who are familiar with the numbers. The Times also opens only 10 percent of its articles for comments (but is working to increase that percentage), and keeps the comment threads open for just one week. NPR currently allows comments on all articles for two weeks.
Moving the conversation to social media
There are disadvantages to using social media as a commenting platform. Fitting a comment into 140 Twitter characters is cumbersome and time-consuming. Only about 20 NPR stories are posted to Facebook each day, out of the total of 45 to 50 stories that get posted to NPR.org. Not everyone wants to create a Facebook or Twitter account. And, Montgomery acknowledged, with some of the social media platforms, "You miss the opportunity to have users engage with one another on the same story."
But the Facebook discussions that do take place, in particular, tend to be more civil, most likely because users are required to use their own names (not that fake accounts don't get through, but there seem to be far fewer than the predominantly fake names that NPR commenters currently rely on).
Montgomery also pointed to an example of community engagement that seems to be working exactly as one might hope: a lively Facebook group that has sprung up around the NPR series Your Money and Your Life. The online community has about 18,300 members who discuss investment and personal finance decisions largely among themselves, with occasional input from NPR.
One change coming next week is unexpected. All existing comments on the site will disappear. That is because while comments look as though they exist on the NPR.org pages, they actually live within Disqus, an outside commenting platform used by NPR. So when the commenting software is removed, the archival comments go with it, Montgomery said, adding that it is not possible to remove the comment system but leave the old comments. Individual users will still be able to see an archive of their own comments in their Disqus accounts.
NPR's broad policy is not to remove content from the site, but comments have always been treated differently, said Mark Memmott, NPR's standards editor. NPR's discussion rules allow for deleting comments that are hateful or off-topic. And NPR has always made a distinction between its own editorial content and user-generated content, Montgomery said.
What is NPR's obligation?
An argument I know NPR will hear, because I've received some letters about it during my tenure, is that NPR, which indirectly receives federal funding (via the membership fees paid by stations) has an obligation to provide such a forum for listeners. It does not, in fact, have any such legal obligation. NPR's obligation is "to provide information," not to "create and maintain a public square," Montgomery said.
But even if NPR has no obligation to provide such a space, the dictates of today's journalism, where audiences expect to be able to interact with their news providers, would suggest that NPR should make an effort to create one. It seems to me that it has at least made a good-faith attempt.
In researching this column I looked back at posts from NPR's social media team in recent years, charting the myriad attempts NPR made to maintain a functioning and civil commenting system.
There was the brimming idealism when in 2008 NPR announced it was moving from discussion boards to individual story commenting, telling readers: "We are providing a forum for infinite conversations on NPR.org. Our hopes are high. We hope the conversations will be smart and generous of spirit. We hope the adventure is exciting, fun, helpful and informative." And, "NPR is a non-profit. We are not launching the project to get more 'hits' that will make more money. We are doing it because it is the respectful thing to do for the NPR community."
Just two years later, Andy Carvin, then NPR's senior product manager for online communities, talked about adding professional moderators to what had been largely staff efforts to keep the conversations free of spam and trolls. Moderation got more aggressive in 2011, and pre-moderation of comments for news stories was tried in 2012. Yet another system was adopted later that year. I was not at NPR during those years, but it appears to me that NPR cannot be faulted for not trying to find a workable solution.
That search will continue, NPR executives told me. In the past year, NPR has investigated newer moderation systems that promise to add more civility to the comment discussions. One of those may eventually be introduced, Montgomery said, but nothing is imminent. But NPR is actively looking for other ways to use the website space that the comments currently occupy, including finding a way to connect the audience to local member stations.
One experiment is likely to begin relatively soon. Joel Sucherman, NPR's senior director for digital products, said NPR expects to begin working, on its Goats and Soda blog, with Hearken, a platform founded in 2015 that solicits audience feedback before the reporting process starts. "The notion is that, instead of asking the audience what should we cover, it's allowing the audience to ask questions and then you curate those questions that come in," Sucherman said. While not in any way a replacement for commenting, he said, "It is representative of the way we want to approach audience interaction in a more positive, constructive way."
He said he expects NPR.org readers will see other new options over the next six to nine months.
As the new options are explored I hope this break will also provoke more internal discussion about the nature of the community NPR wants. Is it primarily about listeners engaging with each other, or about listeners engaging with NPR?
Montgomery said he sees the definition of the community that NPR hopes to create as more of an opportunity for connection to take place around the stories NPR creates, "but it doesn't require our presence to happen." Sucherman said (and I agree) that the expectations are both; listeners and readers want to react to the stories, but they also want to interact with NPR itself.
The current commenting system, of course, offers a way to do just that but the experience unfortunately has fallen far short of the ideal. Take the Code Switch blog, which launched in 2013 with its own discussion rules and what Sucherman called "the best intentions" for the staff itself to heavily participate in the comments section to encourage robust dialogue with the audience. But the system, which was also heavily moderated, "just got overwhelmed," Sucherman said.
Likewise, Linda Holmes, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, until last May engaged actively with her critics in the comments. But she threw in the towel, announcing on Twitter that she was "retiring" from the comments because of "sheer exhaustion" from the back and forth.
Twitter can also be an exhausting and imperfect way to interact with listeners and readers. Some in the newsroom, such as Code Switch lead blogger Gene Demby and Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, keep up a lively dialogue, but I know others in the NPR newsroom are reluctant tweeters. But listeners and readers have no other option for contacting reporters directly. Unlike other major news organizations, NPR does not make its reporters' email addresses public, and instead employs an indirect contact system (which will continue).
Seeing the current sorry state of NPR.org commenting, I support the move to end comments. I am also disappointed. The vast majority of NPR-produced shows no longer even run snippets of letters from listeners; this latest move seems like a step backward, as understandable as it is. So I hope NPR will make good on the promises that newer engagement options will be tried out.
I believe it will. As Montgomery told me, "It was a struggle for us. This is not where anybody wanted to end up." Sucherman, too, while defending the decision to end commenting on NPR.org, said, "It saddens me to be in this position," but he added that it is also "time to explore the next thing, the series of things."
Those are my thoughts. Let us know what you think in the comments below — well, at least for the next few days. And going forward, as always, all the Ombudsman columns are posted on our Facebook page, for those who have an account there and wish to comment.