October 18, 2013

Magazine decides online comments not welcome

As media outlets examine the value of commentary on their Web pages, Popular Science gives it the boot.

By Kendall Helblig
McClatchy Washington Bureau

(Continued from page 1)

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Online commentary is still a work in progress, as media outlets find that the discourse can range from informed discussion to diatribes ruled by spammers and incivility.

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Quartz Editor in Chief Kevin Delaney has fewer people to police comments but he said a small staff didn’t necessarily limit options. He and his 20-person editorial staff recently redesigned comments for the digital global business publication to appear as annotations.

Readers select specific paragraphs to comment on next to the article, rather than having all comments grouped below. There’s even a space for annotators to share links to other studies or articles.

“It takes some thought and effort in the beginning,” Delaney said. But his staff has been able to monitor the annotations along with its other obligations. Writers are responsible for keeping track of the annotations on their articles, and they have the option of promoting annotations they think are of higher quality.

Given the available options, why did Popular Science simply shut off comments?

“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics,” Suzanne LaBarre of Popular Science wrote in her announcement. She wasn’t available for an interview with McClatchy. “If you carry out those results to their logical end – commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded – you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the ‘off’ switch.”

Reactions from the blogosphere have been mixed. Slate, in a headline over staff writer Will Oremus’ piece, called the decision “lazy and wrong.” Others praised the site for putting its foot down and refusing to “empower trolls and the stupids,” as read a tweet that Popular Science featured in a post about readers’ reactions.

Even so, other publications with comparable content haven’t been driven to the same end.

David Grimm, the online news editor for the journal Science, said it had never seriously considered doing away with comments.

Although Science gets its fair share of extreme comments – especially on hot-button issues such as climate change – devoted readers tend to stand up for the articles. Grimm said such readers often commented back, asking where argumentative commenters got their information and providing them with new sources.

“It’s actually really nice to see that, which is one of the reasons we haven’t considered disabling commenters,” he said.

WHAT IS THE ULTIMATE GOAL?

Popular Science encourages its readers to interact with it via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google Plus, email and live chats, a move that Grimm finds interesting.

“Our comments on Facebook tend to be more outlandish than they do on the website,” Grimm said. The publication’s Facebook page reaches a more general, wider audience than its website does. “That certainly wouldn’t be a solution to our problems.”

Quartz editor Delaney said social media were an important platform for discussion, and it was important to be open to that. A lot of issues websites have with comments are rooted in thinking about comments as they existed in 2003, instead of more broadly, Delaney said.

“If you think about commenting as just that section at the bottom of the articles,” he said, “I would argue that that is a pretty limited view.”

If the goal of Popular Science is to prevent comments from drastically changing how an article is received, the separation between articles and comments may be helpful.

Popular Science “is a private entity whose purpose involved educating the public about science,” science historian Oreskes said.

“So for them, a bottom line might be: Is this conversation serving that goal?

“If the answer is no, then I think they have a legitimate and principled justification for shutting it down.”

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