NPR gives up on comments

NPR is the latest news organization to give up on the promise of intelligent discourse online, at least for now.

The network is announcing today that it will eliminate comments on its website, currently handled via the Disqus module, the same module used on this blog.

One can hardly blame NPR. The comments section there, like so many, was a cesspool of the same-old, same-old fights on different days. With a few exceptions — very few exceptions — their inclusion offered nothing of value to readers looking for intelligent perspective.

That doesn’t surprise too many people on the Internet, and yet, it’s public radio, where intelligence is supposed to be the attraction and the forte of its audience.

NPR isn’t exactly saying the quality of commenting is the reason behind today’s announcement. It says people have gone off to NPR accounts on Facebook and Twitter to hold their “discussions.”

NPR’s ombudsman, Elizabeth Jensen, describes a numbers game for the decision.

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.

Where it went wrong for NPR is where it goes wrong for most news organizations. The organization, itself, via reporters or editors, refused — and probably weren’t encouraged — to engage with the audience. As I’ve stated here numerous times, people can pollute a comments section in a hurry when they think nobody is listening. And unless newspeople listen and engage, what’s the point?

Online comments are content and, as such, need the same sort of editorial oversight and standards as the rest of a website’s content. But many organizations are reluctant to expend the energy to guide conversations, keep them civil, and provide content that’s worth reading. Who can blame them? In a time of diminished resources, they’ve got other things to do — the news, for example.

Jensen notes — correctly — that the New York Times is consistently able to do this.

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. Maybe someday, NPR will engage the audience again.

Maybe next time things will be different.

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.

But not everyone deserves a microphone or an audience. Radio stations acknowledge this on their talk shows; that’s why they employ call screeners to separate the valuable perspective from the noise. And unless news organizations are willing to demand a similar standard online, they’re right to do what they are basically doing: hanging up on their audience, which was given every opportunity to prove it could handle its responsibility.

(h/t: Julia Schrenkler)

  • PaulJ

    Comment sections are a good way to monetize (read ‘get donations” in the case of non-profits) the internet; there could be lots of readers who don’t comment and find it interesting. It does help to have a desktop if you’re going to participate. Also, it helps to have a streetwise easterner to keep things on topic. Though I don’t have a fancy CV, I would like to be called a pundit; is commenter even a real word?

    • jon

      Comments sections are a good way to monetize as in “donations” and also as in “My sister makes $100 an hour working for home just for using her computer!”?

  • johnepeacock

    I’ll say “good riddance”. Open, unmoderated commenting on most newsworthy topics these days tend to bring too much vitriol and negative energy to the world. It lets too many trolls out of their basements.

    The rare exception to this is this blog. Thanks for being an active participant Bob.

  • boB from WA

    I’ve noticed on this blog that there are also a few that seem to “monopolize” the conversation.

    Do you have any idea of how many read your blog as opposed to how many comment on various topics? I wonder if it matches up with the NPR stats?

  • lindblomeagles

    NPR’s decision, for me, illuminates the paradox of free speech. Yes, everybody has a right to say what’s on their mind, and democratic societies do not wish to quell discussion simply because a discussion, or several discussions, might endanger the political process. But having the right to say what’s on your mind doesn’t mean you should say it, particularly if the purpose of your speech is to bully, disparage, or assault another person. As I’ve mentioned, several times, on NPR and on News Cut, a lot of people were coming as close to the line as they could with racist comments since Obama’s Presidency began. Surely, this wasn’t the only thing people did on NPR’s comment feed, but, this was definitely one of them, and most of the commenters, as NPR’s data found, were indeed males, who, just by coincidence, are, by national polls, overwhelmingly convinced the nation is headed in the wrong direction. I applaud NPR for pulling the plug with a standing ovation, not solely to end racist vitriol on the Internet, but as a means of waking us all up to the reality that things are not as bad as they seem, and we, have a duty to pursue intelligence when topics of the day are brought to our attention.

    • mnboy67

      “But having the right to say what’s on your mind doesn’t mean you should say it, particularly if the purpose of your speech is to bully, disparage, or assault another person” I’ve been teaching this to my kids since day one and is true in so MANY things in life. Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you HAVE to do something, it is a choice to be made.

    • Veronica

      Sometimes people blow past the line with racist comments.

  • Jeff

    So here’s an odd question, I understand that MPR is separate from NPR (although still connected somehow)…will shows like On Point (hosted on WBUR’s website) eliminate their comment section due to a top down decision from NPR? Or will this elimination of comments only apply to NPR’s website alone?

    • MPR and WBUR do not answer to NPR.

      NPR provides a product that member stations can buy. Nothing more.

  • jon

    I would venture a guess that most internet comments tend to come from desktops/laptops… and the more thougthtful/readable ones in particular.

    Keyboard are easier to type on than screens, and the desktop/laptop is still the king of content creation the phone/tablet is just moving the consumption to a different location.

    I’ll often see something on social media on my phone and make a point to reply next time I have a full (or 3/4 in the case of a laptop) size keyboard.

    If some one comments with an emoji then it probably came from a mobile device, and it is probably not going to add much to the discourse.

    • Veronica

      Hmm. I feel like you just issued a challenge.

      • Al

        I’m up for an all-emoji comment thread, but I don’t think Disqus recognizes emojis, does it?

        • Veronica

          Hmmm…..another challenge! 😉

  • Kassie

    I was going to make a comment about how they should require a member number to comment, then I remembered that I received a new credit card and forgot to update my MPR membership and probably am no longer considered a member. So I fixed that and stand by my original thought.

  • Mike Worcester

    I once asked our local newspaper why they did not require people to put their full real names on comments (ala Minn Post or at least that is their policy). Their answer was telling — they felt no one would leave comments then. It’s that ability to hide behind a pseudonym which emboldens folks to make statements they otherwise likely would not repeat in polite company.

    In another vein, when another local paper cut off their comments due precisely to the imbecilic nature of so many of them, “censorship!” and “infringement of free speech!”: was the cry heard. Not exactly. Those outlets are a private business and they can regulate their content to their heart’s desire.

    I hope this blog keeps it up as it does seem to find a level of discourse where information is shared in an above-junior high level way 🙂

    • Dan

      Some sites use facebook for comments, I see comments left by people using apparently real accounts with real names, visible to all friends and family.

      It’s not as big an improvement as one might hope.

  • Paul Weimer

    The cliche “Don’t read the comments” is a sad truth of our age.

  • Barton

    I believe the NY Times requires you to be a paying subscriber (paper or online) before you can comment on their posts. I think that helps weed out quite a few negative-for-the-sake-of-negativity responses. I wouldn’t really mind if other organizations did the same. While I am all for the concept of a free internet, infrastructure has cost, and I assume that NPR probably had budget shortfalls similar to PBS this fiscal year… and then there is the part of me that recognizes that to do so hinders or eliminates the voices of some who cannot afford to become members/subscribers, and then I go back to wanting free and open exchange.

    If only humans could remember to be civil to one another….

  • Gary F

    Diversity doesn’t mean diversity of opinion. It’s easier when they can just set the agenda on the story.

    • Jeff

      I do wonder why we never hear an MPR radio show that discusses a diversity of thought instead of a diversity of skin color where everyone thinks the exact same way (generally the far left progressive perspective). I like disagreement and detailed discussions with those who disagree with me, I can learn how others think, what they believe and hopefully they learn the same about those who disagree with them. Discussing issues with people who are 100% in agreement with you gets pretty boring pretty quickly…and you don’t learn anything.

      • “A diversity of thought”

        Like what?

        • Gary F

          More right of center opinion and guests.

        • PaulJ

          Hopefully not ‘stream of conscious’ or ‘promotion’ like we get with “Lady and The Trump.”

          • PaulJ

            ….no reflection on the Brave New Workshop meant.

        • Jeff

          Whenever I hear Tom Weber do a show on diversity it’s always from the perspective of skin color or race instead of having some people on who might have a more moderate or conservative political/ideological perspective. Every guest on those shows is clearly anti-Trump, ambivalent about Hillary and supported Bernie…no one talks about Johnson being a viable candidate or even talk about issues that most younger people would be concerned about. When there was a show about young people on campus not one student brought up tuition, difficult courses, working multiple jobs to make ends meet…the biggest issues seemed to relate to microaggressions, white privilege (while Tom Weber was the only “white” person there, he submitted to their opinions as most hosts would) or BLM.

          Imagine a program where a black police officer with a more moderate or even conservative ideology was on a show with younger people discussing BLM or even diversity. I want to hear that discussion…or even find an evangelical, private school student (of any race/background) in that discussion with the standard diversity crew that Tom Weber has on the radio. Also, there is an aspect of life that might be considered rural or “white” culture like hunting season, fishing, some outdoor activities, gun (trap/target shooting as a sport) culture that are absent from MPR’s perspective/shows for the most part.

          • What does this have to do with online comments?

          • Jeff

            I simply answered your question about my idea of “A diversity of thought”, when the media sets the agenda and offers a slanted opinion on issues it means we’re not hearing the full “diversity of thought” on a topic. Removing the comments only furthers that perspective that one opinion held by those on the air or writing the articles is the only valid one.

          • Veronica

            There are opinions, and there are facts. I feel like we’ve been through this a million times here.

            When topics are discussed as part of a larger news operation, that’s commentary. That’s opinion. Comments are (mostly) opinions (though I stand by my thread a few weeks ago positing it’s never OK to drive into anything other than a bug flying. There were some very good life lessons there.)

            As John Oliver pointed out a couple of weeks ago, there are sill journalism outlets that do a fantastic job of asking questions, thinking critically, and following leads. If you discredit that, you need to start thinking a little more. A couple of good examples come from MPR investigations in the last year or so.

            Never would I accuse anyone of bias in the reporting MPR did on the cover up and years of abuse by clergy in the Twin Cities Archdioscese. That was EXCELLENT reporting, and thank goodness for it. Similarly, the reports on the issues in quality of care in the juvenile detention center up North were more examples of how good journalism operates. I don’t give a lick what the reporters’ political leanings are, I just care that they do a good job.

            Now, back to those to topics, once the facts were laid out, then we have the, “What do you think?” conversation.

            Look, we have too many people saying too much garbage on a single day, and refusing to believe ANYTHING, even if presented with evidence that doesn’t line up with their preconceived notions. So for example, if someone in a comment thread claims a presidential campaign never targeted a specific group with hateful rhetoric just because he or she never read it and then refuses to acknowledge that he or she is wrong when presented with a good handful of evidence to the contrary, that gets very dangerous.

            Bottom line? Comments aren’t journalism. Daily talk shows aren’t news. News is news. Sometimes news takes the form of long form journalism to tell big stories in depth (Frontline). Don’t confuse news with commentary.

          • Jeff

            Personally I felt the Archdioscese coverage was good at first but it got very repetitive (over-exposed specifically by MPR since it was their original story/coverage that broke the story)…while other news outlets covered the story, probably not quite enough, I felt MPR gave it too much coverage after the initial dozen or so stories. They did great work with the juvenile detention center story, I agree there. I like MPR and I criticize because I care, I think they care and I hope they adapt and change…and be even better than they are.

            Of course, you had to bring up that issue with Trump from earlier today…people need to focus in on specific words when someone says “as far as I know” that means exactly that! I didn’t know that, I was out of communication with news for like 1 week and because many disagree with me they focus in on that one issue again and again (I’ve had at least a dozen comments against me on that one issue). I clearly admitted I was in a position of ignorance on that point but my original point about “as far as I know” was true, I didn’t state it as fact it was my knowledge which was apparently faulty in this one case because I was in the BWCA…no mercy apparently with those you disagree with.

            I agree, there are comments that don’t add things to a conversation but sometimes they do add points and generate discussions and even get people to make substantive points and come to conclusions or compromises. The idea that “news is news” and there is no bias is a faulty idea too, everyone brings their biases with them to a story and they may try their best to remove them but it may not be possible and in a news culture of left leaning (or right leaning, i.e. FOX News) people it might be very difficult for them to even see their own bias because there is no one to bring it up (which is why I ask for a “diversity of thought” on stories/issues). While many news organizations make a huge effort to search for that diversity in race I have yet to see a serious discussion over with “diversity of thought” or political ideology in news outlets at least in a public way.

          • Veronica

            My point using your previous comment wasn’t to tear you down, but to illustrate how maddening it is to talk about things now.

            The Archdiocese would NOT admit to the truth without piles and piles of investigation. Heck, there are still priests being protected. The story is ongoing.

          • Rob

            Regarding Johnson and his running mate, where’s the diversity? They’re both white, very establishment dudes. Regarding young people, check out Kerri Miller’s show, which frequently covers issues of special concern to millennials.

          • Guys, let’s refocus back to online comments, the responsibility of commenters, the obligation to allow for comments etc.

            There are a gazillion other places out there to have the daily political squabble but it’s unrelated to this post.

            All off-topic comments to be henceforth deleted.

          • Rob

            It would be interesting to know how many total people per day/week/etc were regularly checking out NPRs comments section. In other words, if the number of commenters was considerably less than the total number of viewers on any given day, it’s a bigger deal for NPR to pull the plug than if the small number of commenters was in essence the bulk of the comments section audience.

      • Gary F

        But that’s the way they like it. Then they are always right and don’t have to defend their positions.

        • Rob

          Snore

  • kevins

    Too bad…even with the redundant, entrenched opinions that are predictable almost regardless of the issue, comments to NPR articles did have value to me. I check in with a blog published by the owners of my local paper (Fargo Forum) mostly for entertainment as the childishness, profanity and amazingly regressive and rigid thinking on display is truly amazing. Here at least, there is a chance at civility and dialogue, so I hope MPR does not follow the national policy.

    • kevins

      Sorry about the redundancy with amazing…

  • blk

    With so few commenters making so many comments, it makes me wonder whether professional trolls are behind them. It’s well known the Russian government has paid teams of trolls who roam the Internet to make pro-government statements and insult government opponents in every possible forum, including Western news media.

    Based on the number of similar comments from climate change denialists whenever stories about climate change appear on even obscure websites, I’m guessing that American energy companies hire trolls as well.

    • Kassie

      Wonder what this sort of thing pays? It may be a good side gig and I’d probably be pretty good at it.

      Also, they probably call them Communication Specialists or Public Relations Managers, not trolls.

      • Jeff

        I’m getting paid about $120,000/year to make my comments…

        Just kidding, I offer my wisdom (or lack thereof for those who disagree with me) for free.

        • >>Just kidding, I offer my wisdom (or lack thereof for those who disagree with me) for free.<<

          We can tell.

          /You get what you pay for.
          //Sarcasm…or is it?

          😉

    • Al

      I don’t speak Russian, so that side gig is probably out for me. Damn.

  • Al

    MPR, I know you can hear this. DON’T TAKE AWAY OUR NEWSCUT COMMENTS. Don’t you dare.

    • Jeff

      I’d like to see comments opened up on normal MPR stories for viewers/listeners to discuss.

      • Veronica

        Nope.

      • Al

        Naw, I kinda like being hidden here in the corner of MPR, where we can discuss context intelligently.

  • MarkUp

    In previous Newscut articles when you pulled the plug on comments, I was always surprised with how long it took you to do so. I enjoy reading the comments here (for the most part); they provide other sides to issues that encourage and challenge my own standings. Thanks for not giving up on us!

  • That time Harry Shearer participated in the comments section.

    http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2010/09/harry_shearer_vs_npr/

    The first comment ever surrounding an MPR news story was about some Scouts attacked by a bear at a camp. I got a lengthy email. It was the father of a boy who was killed in such an attack. It was compelling. It added value. It’s what led to the “tell us more about this story” link that appeared with every story for a time. Comments as an EXTENSION of a story or issue.

    I’ve always been more interested in what people can share about their expertise and experience than what they think. I can get the latter from any AM radio station and it doesn’t impress be a bit

  • >>With a few exceptions — very few exceptions — their inclusion offered nothing of value to readers looking for intelligent perspective.<<

    This is why we can't have nice things.

  • Mark in Ohio

    I am truly disappointed in the decision to eliminate the comments section. I frequently comment and find that much of the commentary on this site is very civil and often quite thoughtful. Since my comments were often selected for inclusion in the on-air discussion, I consider that validation of this evaluation. When it comes to the various news programs, I often think that the various programs are thinking too narrowly, missing a question that needs to be addressed, or just disagree with the viewpoints being presented. The comments section serves to bring other viewpoints into the discussion, and keeps the site and coverage from becoming a one viewpoint echo chamber.

    I don’t have either a Facebook or a Twitter account, and have no intention of ever opening either, if I can help it. I was previously disappointed when the comments for MPR news dropped the ability to use Disqus, although I did occasionally comment using my Google account. Since I can’t call in to the various programs due to my work schedule, I guess I’ll go back to being a silent observer.

    • You realize this is a post about *NPR* dropping comments, not *M*PR.