For a little more than a decade, we've provided a space below articles on our website for readers to post comments. It's something that most news organizations have done at their websites at some point, and the primary purpose behind it is simple — story comments section can facilitate community conversation.
That was the idea, anyway. But the concept has not always worked as intended. And there's also been some troubling unintended consequences for some publications in which comments have been abused by people to make hurtful and/or false statements.
In our case, we've generally had a fairly civil comments section, in part because we do moderate submissions before they get posted. But as time has progressed, we've also seen the comments feature become less popular with what has been a rapidly growing readership online.
That trend has not been unique to auburnpub.com. And it's a big reason a growing number of news organizations are getting rid of story commenting. In one of the more high-profile cases last summer, National Public Radio cited some telling statistics. Just 0.06 percent of NPR's monthly unique visitors were posting comments. And within that small group, a majority of the comments were being made by an even smaller subset.
We had noticed our comment volume declining for several years, despite significant growth in site visitors. But seeing the data from NPR convinced me that we should take a closer look at some of our metrics.
We did, and the numbers were clear: Our comments section, which does take valuable staff time to administer, is not a community conversation. Instead, it's a small discussion among a smaller group of readers. Here are some key pieces of data for September:
• The number of different commenters at auburnpub.com represented 0.04 percent of site visitors in September.
• The two most prolific commenters accounted for 39 percent of all comments posted.
• The top five commenters accounted for half of all postings.
Those figures were enough to convince me that it's time for auburnpub.com to get out of the story comments game, which is what we're doing as of today, Oct. 6.
That doesn't mean, however, that we're done with reader interactivity. Like NPR and a host of other companies that have eliminated story comments, we've seen a solid growth in the number of people having conversations about the news at our Facebook page. We'll continue to have that available, along with our other social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. We also will do live coverage blogs and Q&A sessions that allow for real-time conversations about topics, candidates, events, etc. And we still have letters to the editor, the time-honored feature for newspapers that has actually grown in popularity for us in the past year.
Another interactive feature we'll continue is allowing readers to post condolence messages below our published obituaries. We felt that was a unique content area that's used by a much greater variety of readers than the standard story comment feature.
Finally, we're going to allow commenters a chance to give their opinions about this very decision by keeping the comments open for the online version of this column.
I've written many times over the years about the importance of our company evolving and adapting to the changes that take place in our market and industry. That was the philosophy that guided us to bring story comment to our readers in the first place, and it's now the main reason we're bringing an end to the practice in 2016.