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Social media 'leaves publishers in the dust, connecting people around stories'

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Publishers pride themselves on being at the top end of the business of storytelling, but have arguably been bad at recognising and exploiting the value of connections that develop around stories.

“Social media has kicked news media's ass in capitalising on a deep human need to connect with one another about stories,” says Jennifer Brandel, co-founder and CEO of Hearken, a “listening-first” platform (more about that towards the end of this article) that helps journalists to connect with their audience from early on in the storytelling process.

We asked her, Greg Barber, director of Digital News Projects at The Washington Post, who is also The Post’s lead for The Coral Project, and Christa Mrgan, co-founder and VP of design at Civil Co., for their opinions on audience engagement and:

1. Websites “outsourcing” comment sections to social media

2. If and how comment sections and social media should work in tandem  

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Above: from left, Jennifer Brandel, Hearken; Greg Barber, The Coral Project; Christa Mrgan, Civil Co.

This is the second part of a discussion centered around comments sections, with Part 1 a long read with Greg and Christa touching on topics such as how they aim to address publisher “pain points” around comments sections, and how comments sections can help bust echo chambers and develop trust, contribute to publisher monetisation strategies, and more. See The oft-maligned "comments section" – time for a rethink? for more.

Axing comments from websites

Jennifer believes “even if early experiments with comments sections had decidedly mixed (note: some would say disastrous!) results,” publishers miss a trick if they remove these sections from their sites. “It’s absolutely vital for newsrooms to provide welcoming, productive spaces for public participation” for their audiences. “When newsrooms remove their comments sections, it signals to the public that they are not welcome in that space.”

Moreover, “at a time newsrooms are again realising that relationships are the foundation on which their businesses need to be built (especially as ad revenue continues to drop), there is a real paradox to contend with when opportunities for audience engagement gets axed.

“While removing comments can be a short term solution to a real problem of design, if removal is not paired with a better designed opportunity, they are sending quite a message to the public that will take a long time to walk back from.

“I completely understand that comments sections do take resources to tend to and make valuable, and some newsrooms are not prioritising that for a whole variety of reasons, but there are amazing platforms that exist and are being released (she references Civil and The Coral Project), which aim to correct for a lot of behavioural issues seen in both the public and the newsroom. To me, this leaves me optimistic about comments.”

Using social media as a substitute

In axing comments sections from their websites, some publishers have offered that social media has replaced the “out-dated technology,” offering a better way for connecting not only with a wider range of users.

For Jennifer (Hearken), social media left publishers in the dust, better exploiting the opportunity to connect people around stories. But “when newsrooms award that huge opportunity to another company or platform, they can’t be surprised when that company doesn’t want to give it back to them or operates without the newsroom’s best interests at heart.”

According to Greg (The Washington Post and The Coral Project), “Social media is a great way for news organisations to connect with users, and I think understanding how your news organisation engages on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat is an important part of a newsroom’s strategy. But there are benefits to a news organisation in engaging with readers without a social-media intermediary.

“A news organisation has the most flexibility to manage discussions on a site it manages with a discussion policy that fits the needs of its mission and its readers. News organisations also need to monetise, through advertising, sponsorships, subscriptions, etc. Advertisers and sponsors like to reach engaged readers, and studies have shown that onsite features like comments that prompt social engagement can help lead casual readers to become paid customers.”

For Christa, “A publisher's audience is its most valuable asset; it seems obvious to me that publishers would want to keep the conversation happening on their own sites as much as possible, where they most benefit from growing a community. For news organisations, especially, comments sections are crucial, functioning like online town hall meetings. Comments sections expose people to diverse opinions they might not otherwise encounter within the siloed, social media echo chambers.”

Using comment sections and social media in tandem

Greg questions why newsrooms would want to restrict access to a range of voices. “If you were reporting a story on a potential local tax hike, would you hew to a rule that you only approach locals at grocery stores, not city hall or a shopping mall? 

“Social media sites and news sites are places where people congregate digitally, and as with physical places where people congregate, a reporter is likely to find a different range of voices in each one. Any of them could be part of a reporting strategy, and all of them have value. Permanently restricting your scope means consistently depriving yourself of that potential set of voices.”

For Christa, social media provides the opportunity to engage people and drive them back the source, where conversation can be enhanced. “I think social media can be leveraged to drive traffic back to your site, especially if more exciting conversations and events are happening there. 

“One interesting result for a site that recently switched from using the Facebook comments plugin to Civil Comments was that participation more than doubled, and their on-site comments now consistently outnumber the comments on Facebook under the same cross-posted articles. 

Hearken: Engaging audiences early in the journalistic process

If comment sections typically come into their own once stories are published (although they are also sources for stories), Hearken aims to be involved more upstream in the journalistic process, before stories are written. 

Jennifer explains, “With Hearken, we think listening to the public from the very beginning of a story is a compelling model. By inviting the public in early, they have a voice in shaping decision-making; feeling empowered, heard and connected to the news organisation.” 

Jennifer will be speaking at DIS 2017: Read this Q&A with her for more on Hearken. 

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