On August 23, 2016, America’s NPR — National Public Radio — will no longer open its articles to readers’ comments.

In fact, all past comments will disappear. DCist tells us:

because they are run through Disqus, a third-party moderating system (that DCist also uses).

Reasons for censorship

On August 17, NPR’s Elizabeth Jensen explains that:

1/ The commenters do not represent NPR’s listeners —

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.

2/ A small number of NPR users generated most of the comments —

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.

3/ Disqus is too expensive to run, because the more comments, the higher the cost —

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.

I am very pro-comment, because, without readers chiming in on various sites, I never would have found out about rented mules, about which I posted on August 16.

Going further into the NPR rationale, the management apparently did not like the nature of the comments they were receiving:

1/ The commenters do not represent the statistical NPR audience (another perspective) —

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 …

2/ NPR received complaints —

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.

Regulars’ objections

NPR has listeners and readers who, apparently, are sensitive creatures. NPR, therefore, must protect their feelings.

A male regular from Phoenix emailed NPR’s Jensen:

“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 lady from North Carolina:

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?”

Censorious readers have two options: a) don’t read the comments or b) filter out trollish users.

NPR now recommends using Facebook for discussion on their articles and programmes.

Facebook. Something I and millions of others will never use and try to avoid visiting where possible.

Why the New York Times can have comments

Jensen explained why other media sites, such as The New York Times, can maintain readers’ comments:

… 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.

I, too, operate a limited comments policy: my threads are open for two weeks and that’s it. Last year, an arrogant left-wing drive-by bluntly told me to open the comments on a really old post so that he could vent. I refused. My site, my rules.

When NPR sang a different tune

In 2008, with the Democrats and Obama in the ascendant, life at NPR was so very different. On September 28, Dick Meyer announced:

Starting now, it will be easier for you to talk to us, for us to talk to you and for you all to talk to each other. We are making it possible for anyone who registers with us to comment on a story and to create a profile page where many interesting things can happen. 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. This is important for the NPR community.

That last phrase — “important for the NPR community” — is not phony baloney corporate rhetoric, I promise.

A few days later, on October 1, Andy Carvin enthused:

As you probably have seen by now, we rolled out several new community tools on the NPR Web site this week, including user profiles and discussion threads for all of our stories. The feedback so far has been very positive …

Fast forward to 2016 and the national dialogue has changed. NPR and their regulars find it upsetting. We don’t like it, so it can’t be said: censorship.

Other sites which have stopped comments

Of course, NPR is not the first nor the only Big Media site to censor readers’ views by stopping their input altogether. Others couldn’t take the reader heat, either.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog on The Atlantic

Although The Atlantic largely allows readers to comment on their articles, Ta-Nehisi Coates closed his blog entries to comments.

He had good intentions from the time he launched his blog in 2008. It was open to comments from the start. In 2010, he reiterated his comments policy to ensure civility.

DCist points out that, by and large, some of his readers’ responses were so good that they spawned careers at the magazine’s online site:

The current Washington bureau chief, Yoni Appelbaum, was discovered by his posts in the section …

In 2008, Appelbaum commented as Cynic. He was a PhD student at Brandeis University at the time. Longreads tells us:

he started commenting during the 2008 election run-up. His comments were unfailingly thorough, thoughtful and respectful, and Coates often flagged his contributions in follow-up posts.

Then, as Appelbaum recalls it, Coates contacted him “because he had deduced that I was a historian,” and he had some questions that related to his own historical work. They began to keep in touch outside the comment section, and in June 2010, Coates asked Appelbaum to turn a long comment he’d posted about Ulysses S. Grant into a standalone blog post. That one post was followed by a guest-blogging stint for Appelbaum—still identified only as “Cynic.” Not too long after that, Appelbaum was recruited right out of the comment section, and given a steady role—and a proper byline—as an online contributor to The Atlantic.

“In March 2011, my phone rang. And it was Bob Cohn of The Atlantic,” Appelbaum says. “That’s not a phone call you can really turn away. So I started contributing regularly then.”

Coates’ regular commenters were known at The Horde. He enjoyed what they had to say and even started special threads for them covering Mad Men, books and readers’ plights, such as the death of a pet dog.

By 2014, Coates’s moderator, Sandy Young, was torn about banning comment from those who opposed the blogger’s views. He told Longreads:

I don’t want to be that guy who tries to fix the Internet, but people I know and care about are going to see this and be insulted or hurt by it. What should I do? I have this power—should I use it or not?

That year, Coates cut back on his Atlantic blogging. When he did blog long pieces on black Americans’ concerns, he attracted extra-Horde comments. By the time Longreads interviewed him in February 2015, he said:

To be honest, I can’t say how long this will go on for.

In September 2015, he stopped comments on his blog. However, he did pay tribute to The Horde.

The Telegraph

Earlier this year — 2016 — the Telegraph stopped readers’ comments.

Private Eye had an article which said that the site’s advertisers were unnerved by the readers’ comments.

At that time, many comments concerned UKIP, migration to the Mediterranean, physical assaults on European women and the EU Referendum — all hot topics.

Since then, according to Private Eye, the Telegraph‘s online reader stats took a dive. The magazine has stopped writing about the Telegraph lately, so it is unclear what the current situation is.

However, vox pops are clearly worrying to online Big Media sites.

The Guardian‘s Stephen Pritchard issued this warning in March:

In January, I wrote about new efforts to keep the party polite online as comment numbers were ballooning up to 65,000 a day. Subjects such as race, immigration and Islam too often attracted toxic commentary, so henceforth they would only have comments open if a moderated, positive debate were deemed possible – one without racism, abuse of vulnerable subjects, author abuse or trolling …

My claim that we were living in an “age of rage” attracted this reaction: “Surely one of the engines for the ‘age of rage’ is the systematic suppression of any comprehensive debate on race, immigration and Islam and it is that or the responses to any questioning of current shibboleths that drives people to extreme points of view” …

The Telegraph is in the process of ending commentary on its site. That’s not being proposed here, but editors need to think harder about when it would be wise to switch off the ability to comment if a subject is likely to attract so much rage that a mature conversation becomes impossible. It devalues our journalism and offends our readers.

Conclusion

Right-of-centre comments are scaring Big Media big time.

Their online site managers are happy when everything is left-of-centre, but once the arguments move to the other side of the spectrum, they perceive a problem.

Expect more reader censorship in time. The excuse might be stated as money-related, as in NPR’s case, but the truth will be somewhat closer to the bone. They just cannot tolerate any opinions that aren’t leftist.

Advertisements