Crosscut Is Shutting down the Comments Section – but They Have a Plan to Engage Audiences "More Fully Transparently and Meaningfully"

Here on the MobiLoud blog we’ve written quite a bit about comments sections and publisher communities.
For example we interviewed Andrew Losowsky, head of The Coral Project about why you shouldn’t disable comments.
So we’re always pretty interested in stories about publishers changing their community strategies.
Crosscut recently announced that the end of 2019 will also be the end of comments threads under articles on their site.

They’ve had a comments section since 2007, and it’s fair to say the decision didn’t come easy.
What’s behind the decision?
Crosscut summed it up by stating that after “careful analysis and conversation” the news team decided that the comments section no longer supported their mission to:

“foster communities that intelligently participate in civic discourse”

In our interview, Andrew Losowsky noted that comments sections can easily go wrong. The dream is that they become helpful and civil forums for intelligent and courteous discussion, but they can just as easily descend into a “pit of vipers”.
This seems to be what happened in the case of Crosscut.

“The tenor of our comment sections has frequently been rife with bigotry, racism and deliberate misinformation that undermines our journalism. On a human level, those comments have real world effects on people who make themselves vulnerable by publicly sharing their stories”

The issue came into sharper focus for them in the last year, since they wrote pieces on female Muslim lawmakers, race and culture, and gender diverse youth.

“Comment threads on dozens of articles published this year contained threats of violence, racist attacks and other forms of toxic behaviour”

The Crosscut team came to two main conclusions.

  1. There are a lot of ways for people to discuss the news these days. There’s no need for the Crosscut team to moderate everything when the conversation can happen on Facebook and Twitter.
  2. The time they spend moderating comments could instead be invested in finding better ways to listen to and communicate with audience members

In our interview, Andrew acknowledged that comments aren’t for everyone. Listening to your audience and having a two way dialogue will always be key, but there’s clearly more than one way to fulfil that.

“Really think in a more flexible way – what are you trying to do and what are the benefits for you of community?”

Crosscut dug into the data and made a smart decision based on that. Although they had a fairly high volume of comments, the value for their brand was unclear.
If you’re in this position yourself, you know that moderation is pretty resource intensive. Is there a better way you could reach your goals?

“We analyzed our Disqus data and we found that roughly 17,400 comments were made on our site in 2019, but 45% came from just 13 people. That data tells us that social media, email, phone calls, letters to the editor, our Crosscut events and an occasional visit to the newsroom are far better tools for us to hear about your concerns, story ideas, feedback and support”

So what action are they taking?
In mid-January, they’re going to be shutting down the comments. In their place, they’re going to introduce:

“A new way for you to help shape our coverage, pose smart questions for us to sniff out and give us feedback”

Interestingly, this will include a new digital “letters to the editor” column which will:

“Bring more people to the table to talk about our editorial decisions”

This is an interesting look into how some publishers think about community and engagement. Ultimately what you do with your own comments section is a decision only you can make by balancing the investment it needs with the benefits it brings to your brand.
Check out our interview with Andrew Losowsky for some more perspectives on this.