Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

The Mozilla-New York Times-Washington Post project: Turning comments into community

June 19, 2014, 8:54 a.m., Posted by Marie Gilot

Photo credit: Garry Knight on Flickr.com

Many readers who comment on articles are valuable to a news organization. They are highly engaged, often knowledgeable about the subject and their comments attract other readers, swelling page views and time-on-page statistics.

And yet, commenting sections are often some of the worst corners of the Internet. Vicious attacks and even racist and sexist language are routine, whether the commenters are anonymous or not.

This is a puzzle for newsrooms and a missed opportunity to connect with readers. It is also a real threat to news organizations. Rogue commenting sections can tarnish reputations and even lead to legal action. Monitoring comments to mitigate this risk is a resource drain that few publishers can afford.

But what if we could build a commenting system that gives commenters a real sense of ownership? What if readers could manage their online identity and contributions across news sites under a single sign-in? What if they could contribute pictures, links, even their own stories? What if they could track discussions and form friendships with one another? Wouldn’t that system build a sense of community and lead to self-policing and civility?

These are the questions that led to a rare collaboration between The New York Times and The Washington Post, with Mozilla Foundation as the coordinator. Thanks to a $4 million grant from Knight, the partners will create a user-generated content system made of building blocks that can be rearranged to create dynamic new ways for the user to become a contributor.

Under the grant, the system will be made available to all news organizations, not just The New York Times and The Washington Post. The partners will also ensure that the final product is usable by newsrooms of any size, especially smaller outfits that can’t spare staff members to monitor comments.

A preliminary study of commenting systems funded by Knight this year found a lot of social good in comments. Readers, researchers found, turn to comments for social cues on how to react to a story; they like reading contributions from experts in the comments; and that they are more careful about their own comments if the comments are permanent and attributed to them. With this new project, Knight will build on these insights and empower readers to be more informed and engaged.

Marie Gilot is a media innovation associate at Knight Foundation.