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How to Keep the Comments Section Productive

(L to R) David Carr of  The New York Times, James Bennet of The Atlantic, Joanna Coles of Cosmopolitan, Chris Hughes of The New Republic, Jane Pratt of xojane.com

Last night, eminent editors-in-chief gathered for a discussion at NYU’s annual “Media Talk” panel. The event was moderated by David Carr of The New York Times and the panelists included: James Bennet of The Atlantic, Joanna Coles of Cosmopolitan, Chris Hughes of The New Republic and Jane Pratt of xojane.com. Among the discussion of the changing media biz was some helpful advice on how journalists and publishers can approach online commenters. We’ve gathered some of the highlights below:

What business are you in?

“We’re in the experience business,” said Hughes. “Magazines are not about going in and reading a single article, they’re about choosing a brand and spending on average 15 plus minutes with it… [Readers want to] trust an editor to curate an experience.”

“I’m in the journalism business,” said Bennet, “what we think about all the time is to hold on to the old ways of doing journalism that are worth holding onto and grab hold of any new means of doing journalism that are worth doing, and where it’s relevant or useful to our readers to bring those two things together.”

On Print vs. Digital

“Fundamentally, it’s not about print vs. digital — I think that’s the wrong way to think about this. It is about good vs. bad,” said Bennet, who similarly doesn’t agree with the ‘long-form’ vs. ‘short-form’ distinction. “Long, deeply reported stuff works in a digital environment, people are likely to share your content if they think it’s good, and if they think it’ll make them look good.”

Hughes found the similar trends at The New Republic: When it comes to the ‘big idea’ pieces, ” social is not only a friend of this long stuff, it’s the primary driver of traffic.” He found that both these ‘big idea’ pieces and the shorter, more timely news bites do well on the web.

Earlier this year, Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates won a national magazine award for his essay, “Fear of a Black President.” Bennet recounted how the first thing he did after winning the award was write a blog post thanking his commenters. “Writing for the website has fundamentally changed how I write in print,” wrote Coates. “I want to thank whoever it was that told me to read Making The Second Ghetto. I want to thank all the philosophy-heads who dive into my naive and infrequent discussions of Hobbes.”

“Do we call that a print triumph? Do we call that a digital triumph?” asked Bennet. “It’s a journalistic triumph.”

On Commenters

Though Pratt reminisced about the days of Sassy and Jane, (“There’s something so satisfying about that actual physical thing”), she said that there’s “the immediate conversation I’m able to do now that I wasn’t able to do then.” But how does she make sure the comments don’t descend into the troll-filled netherworld that they’re so disposed to? First of all, she’s in the comments all the time.

“If [the commenters] point out something I did wrong, I’ll say, ‘Oh, I was having a bad day, I was getting my period.’ You say something that makes you a real person… Then they’ll come back and be like ‘Oh my god, I just had the worst period of my life!’ You’re no longer just someone they can bash without feeling.”

Carr, admittedly, never goes in the comments because “you end up wanting to kill yourself,” but he did take Pratt’s advice into stride: “I’m going to mention my period next time,” he quipped.

And while Coates thanked his commenters after winning the ASME, he’s the one who gets credit for creating such a community. “He’s worked so hard to make it happen,” said Bennet.

His view of the comments is it’s a dinner party. It’s his dinner party or his bar… He gets to set the rules. He gets to determine when your behavior has crossed the line, and you’re free to go to the bar down the street — he doesn’t owe anyone to stay in there. And, over the course of several years now, he’s pushed people out. The others who’ve stayed have seen that and they’ve learned from it and they really value it… He just says, “over to you,” and there’s this rich debate.

Photo Credit: ©NYU Photo Bureau/Elena Olivo.

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