Mailbag: Saying Goodbye To Comments : NPR Ombudsman Users responded to NPR's recent decision to shut down comments.
NPR logo Mailbag: Saying Goodbye To Comments

Mailbag: Saying Goodbye To Comments

More than 3,400 comments were posted on my previous column, which looked at some of the reasons behind NPR's decision to shut down commenting on stories posted at NPR.org. Those comments are in addition to emails to the Ombudsman office, tweets, comments left on NPR's Facebook page and all other modes of reaction.

The comments were removed from NPR.org on Tuesday, when the commenting function was disabled, but they can still be read here. Additional comments left below the official announcement can be found here. Many people left comments on Facebook, which can be read here.

One frequent request that we received was, in the words of a prolific commenter who went by the name Sanpete in Utah, "to see to it that the comments are preserved." They have been; NPR's digital team has shared links to all eight years' worth of comments, archived with the original article at disqus.com. Links can be found here, organized by blog, as well as a general category for news that includes all the older newsmagazine stories. It may take some wading through to find individual stories of interest.

I've included a wide variety of the responses below. One recurring theme stood out: Many, many listeners said that they never left comments themselves, but read them regularly. NPR officials had cited the relatively small number of actual commenters, compared to users of the website, as one reason for discontinuing website comments.

I asked some in the newsroom for their thoughts to all the reactions they received following the announcement. Joel Sucherman, NPR's senior director of digital products, in an email message, told me, in part: "The one consistent criticism I have heard this week from commentators and commenters is, using social media channels or other software like Hearken won't be the same as being able to have a comment section on each story. That's true. But we'll continue to try to figure out the most constructive ways to ensure a real dialogue with listeners/readers/users that helps make our world-class journalism relevant and indispensable in people's lives."

Sara Goo, NPR's deputy managing editor for digital, wrote, "The response has been interesting in that most of our audience has reached the same conclusion that we did — disappointment." She added, "We all so badly want, philosophically, for our web site to be a public square of smart ideas and commentary and interaction with us and with each other. A forum of diverse views. But the data makes clear it just wasn't that. It is clear that the challenge for us going forward is to continue to search for better solutions and experiment with new ways to try and find what can come closer to accomplishing that."

One housekeeping point: Here and Now, the midday program which is co-produced by NPR and Boston's WBUR, continues to have a comment section, as do two other shows that NPR distributes (but does not produce), On Point and The Diane Rehm Show. Many member station websites are keeping comments open, as well.

Meanwhile, here is just a very small sampling of the reactions we received (some condensed and edited for space and clarity):

From Norman Hill, of Citrus Heights, Calif.: "I was disappointed to see that you have discontinued comments. After reading the story about the mysterious, encrypted, medieval book in the Yale Library, I wanted to see other readers' take on the story. But comments are no more. Yes, I, too, have seen the abuse of the comments by serial commenters pushing agendas in tiresome ways. There were too many petty insults flying back and forth. But there were also the occasional insightful comments that made wading through the comments worthwhile. Without the comments, npr.org will be worth less to me. I hope your new ways for expressing reactions to stories will not be too cumbersome."

From user vibrato: "I was initially disappointed by this decision, but find myself reconsidering. For one, I will be glad to move on. I have had many stimulating conversations and wish everyone well. But too often these forums, even with moderation, become nothing more than vitriolic, blanket demonizations of people and ideologies with no more reason in them than a slap in the face. I will be glad to leave that behind. For another, I see nothing wrong in NPR moving the social media aspects of this website to where they belong—social media outlets. Let this site just be about reporting news and other stories in keeping with NPR's mission."

From user Abbi Baily:

"Dear NPR, I hate your decision to close down the comments section. I've zero interest in being tracked on (or by) Facebook, and I want to join Twitter less than I look forward to seeing my dentist. Being confined to 140 characters is far too limiting ... I am distressed to lose contact with the most interesting, vibrantly (sometimes [quirky]) intellectual community of people I'll never have a chance to meet in person. I feel I have formed relationships with dozens of commenters here, and I resent losing that. I have learned so much, about such diverse topics! I can type a few rude words in Czech, I am now familiar with the history of Clovis, the first King of what was to become France (and who arguably influenced the present formation of all Europe), I finally grasped the difference between who and whom, I learned an awful lot about rabbits, and how endearingly grouchy Texas men can be, why I like [people with Asperger's syndrome] so much but also why you are not as infallibly logical as you say you are, who powerfully sinister people hire to do their taxes, why it's impossible to grow roses in South Florida, no matter how much fungicide you apply, the importance of encryption, why I should be more open minded about Mormons and a thousand other tidbits. I will really, really miss you. You all have helped balance and expand my world view, thank you."

From user George Marie: "I want to voice my support in having the comments section of NPR removed. The comment thread has included some of the most racist, sexist things I've come across online. The rare moments where someone is adding something of substance to the conversation have largely been overshadowed by those who argue excessively and relentlessly with each other or whose only motive seems to be to insult the intelligence or the views of NPR and its readers. Although there will be many complaints, I am grateful NPR has decided to take this action."

From user This_is_my_first_comment:

"I have never commented on any articles on NPR (or anywhere else for that matter), but I created an account just to say that I will miss reading all your comments. I get a kick out of reading the comment sections on various news websites; each one has a very unique community which responds to controversial topics differently. ... I think by moving to 'social media commenting' (i.e. commenting on Facebook), the quality of conversations will be diluted a great deal. The biggest loss will be the anonymity factor. With commenting right now, other members of the community only have your words to judge you by. On FB on the other hand, it's difficult not to have a preconceived notion of who someone is based on 'what' they look like, 'where' they live, etc."

From user Jason B:

"I've made my fair share of comments, and I'll miss the comments section here. However, this is NOT a free speech issue. We had free speech before the Internet was invented, and we'll have free speech after the NPR comments section ceases to exist. NPR is not obligated to publish our opinions (and vitriol) for the world to see, while we do nothing but type up screeds in our pajamas. You want to rail against the government? Write letters, make phone calls, email your elected officials, hold community meetings, march in the streets. You want to praise a writer or a band? Write them a fan letter, post reviews on their Amazon page, spread the word on Twitter. You want to insult Adele's or Barbra Streisand's appearance as soon as you see a picture of them? You have (unfortunately) other avenues to do that, and I'm sure you'll happily be able to go on soiling other public conversations without the benefit of NPR's forum. You want the world to know your opinions about life in general? Go start your own blog. It's easy, and it's free. Commenting on website articles is a PRIVILEGE, not a right."

From user Secondlaws:

"If I'm being honest with myself, I haven't always been completely responsible about my comments at NPR. On the other hand, when I've done it right, I have found it valuable to consider well articulated viewpoints that differ with my own, often from individuals with remarkable expertise, and then compose my own ideas expressed in a format longer than 140 characters—and in that process have often had to revise my understanding. That seems to me the ultimate measure of success. I am skeptical that the most popular social media platforms can be as effective as this. Twitter, for instance, is more suited to snark than to dialogue. It's the NPR comment section's ability to challenge my understanding — and not the partisan venom — that I will miss."

From user Brian Byrne: "I just wanted to drop a line in support of removing the comments section. Comments sections are where intelligent discourse goes to be trampled, and though I have no doubt NPR did a better job than most of keeping things at least sort of civil, I think de-commenting the Internet is a good way to help return to a time when we figured out whether or not we had something worthwhile to say before offering our opinions. So thank you!"

From user Fuel4The4: "Many people comment here to engage in discussion — not to be spoon-fed the daily news. Comments often reveal editorial bias and 'the story that was left out'. Now there's just a 'take it or leave it' offering and I'm more inclined to 'leave it' and go somewhere else."

From Will in Salt Lake City, Utah: "Thank for no longer supporting Comments. They had transcended good taste, reason and were not worthy of public news programming."

From user Sskadows: "You've also upset your core audience (including myself, an avid loyal listener, reader and multiple NPR station supporting member) who read the comments and enjoy this valuable enhancement to our news consumption. While I comment rarely — usually because I see others have already voiced my thoughts — I read the comments frequently, often finding intelligent and thoughtful insights, divergent views, and information that add to my understanding of the story. NPR has made a very disappointing and frustrating move and I sincerely hope you will realize this mistake and quickly reverse your wrong-headed decision."

From Facebook commenter Heather Ferreira: "I'm a Generation X-er who grew up during the 1970's. News had no comments then. News does not need comments. This is a wise step of leadership from NPR. Comments detract from the story."

I'll end with a couple of ideas commenters sent in:

From user Ms. Snarkypants: "I'll be sad to see this community go; there are a lot of interesting characters on here (to say the least). However, I understand the rationale for discontinuing the comment section in its current form and I support that decision. Perhaps someday you could try a forum for NPR subscribers only — with real names and public profiles."

From user Optimalist:

"I would like to offer an alternative that may not have been considered. It's a fairly simple idea:

Each registered user would be allotted a daily budget of, say, two comments, with no rollover. For every ten up votes (or some other threshold) that a user's comments received, he or she would be allotted an additional comment the next day, up to a maximum of ten. (This is only an example. Perhaps another allotment and adjustment scheme would work better... .)

Under such a system, inappropriate commenters wouldn't be able to cause much harm (and their comments could still be removed). And those who felt compelled to comment more heavily would have a strong incentive to write noteworthy and well-received comments. Also, comments sections would no longer be vulnerable to hijacking by a few, prolific commenters.

Comments allow users to give important feedback to article authors, to provide critical counterpoints and alternative perspectives, and to include other helpful ideas. Accordingly, if NPR were to reinstate a commenting system that included controls such as those suggested, NPR, readers, and commenters could all realize these benefits."