When I first started writing, everyone always warned me to stay far, far away from the comments. Perhaps I’m narcissistic—or a glutton for punishment—but I found it nearly impossible to stop myself from checking in. When writing for MMA sites, I’d read through insult after insult written by teenagers living in their parents’ basement (our core audience), which was never a pleasant experience.
The free weekly paper that paid me pennies to blog about food after it fired its full-time food writer clearly didn’t have the staff to moderate comments. Whenever I’d give a restaurant a good review, I’d get to sift through weird conspiracy theories about how I was secretly coerced into saying nice things because of some kind of advertising deal that didn’t actually exist. I always felt slightly betrayed that these sites hung us writers out to dry by not moderating at all. I rarely responded, though I was tempted to create fake accounts to argue with readers about how I was right. I always wondered if the wrath of commenters would taint how editors viewed my work.
I was a ghostwriter for a couple of large health websites, always surprised at how the people I ghosted for reacted to the comments. They’d expect rewrites and revisions over minor nitpicks, even if the commenter was wrong.
Sites have wildly different opinions on whether journalists should engage with readers. Some sites don’t seem to pay attention, while others—such as MindHut and SparkLife—even go so far as rewarding writers who get a certain amount of upvotes when responding to comments.
I won’t deny feeling a little bit of relief when I find out a site I write for has no comments section, but I’ll also admit that my opinion on comments has shifted over the years. Not only do I read the comments on most of the sites I write for, I also respond to clarify information. I’m confident enough in my writing that I’m often capable of pulling out the actual argument in a comment while ignoring the parts meant to bait me. Sometimes that means I’m telling people to read a paragraph or section they missed, but other times I actually learn something that guides future reporting; if a section is unclear to multiple readers, that may prompt me to define my terms in more detail in a future post.
I find that a small but significant percentage of those vitriolic comments come from experts in their fields. Many are writers themselves. Learning not to take comments personally isn’t easy for me, but putting my ego aside has been rewarding.
Hanging out in the comments section also helps me direct people to other articles that have supplementary information. That step is important to me because editors can strip my links or ask me to link to a summary article rather an original study or report that’s a bit too technical for most of our readers (or requires them to sign in).
But not all freelancers feel the same way about comments. Your personal temperament, the topics you write about, the sites you write for, the level of engagement of those sites, and your schedule are just a few factors that could affect whether you read and respond to the chatter on your pieces. To get a glimpse of some varied viewpoints, I reached out to four writers for their perspectives.
Ignoring most comments
Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, a staff writer at Vice who covers hacking, information security, and digital rights for Motherboard, isn’t big on comments. “To be honest, I’ve never really paid too much attention to comments, because I grew up thinking that they’re not very useful,” he said. “I grew up with the assumption that comments were never very useful, so when I became a journalist I never really paid attention to them.”
That’s not to say that he avoids the comments entirely—he occasionally scrolls down and reads a few here and there. But because he never felt that comments were a way for him to directly engage with writers, nothing has happened that would change that mindset.
Franceschi-Bicchierai does spend a lot of time responding to comments on Twitter, though, so readers can reach out to him there. And while he’s heard from fellow reporters that story ideas are often born in the comments, he’s still not quite convinced. “I wonder what the ratio is between the time you spend reading useless comments and how many of those are useful and get you a story idea,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s worth it.”
Tracking the first 24 hours
Cyrus Farivar, senior business editor at Ars Technica, doesn’t read all of the comments, but he does skim through them during the first 24 hours after a post goes live. He’s looking for readers to point out errors, be it missing commas, typos, or information that’s incorrect. “I’d like to know about those sooner rather than later so the story can be corrected and made as accurate as possible,” he added.
Ars Technica not only has prolific commenters, there’s also a forum that discusses the posts in more detail, but Farivar told me he doesn’t have time to participate in those discussions due to time constraints. “Leaving a comment on an article is a really bad way to get my attention,” he said.
People can email or tweet him to reach out directly.
Maryn McKenna, a journalist and author who specializes in public health, global health, and food policy, believes the culture of the site you work for is crucial when determining whether or not to engage with comments.
“When I was writing at Wired, my readers didn’t leave a lot of comments, and engaging the commenters in the comments didn’t seem to make a difference to my pageviews,” she said. “Most of my interaction with my readers took place on Twitter. At National Geographic, I have much more active commenters, and they expect interaction and replies, so I am engaging with them more than I did before.”
McKenna enjoys interacting with commenters who recommend papers for her to read or new areas of research, but she doesn’t have the time to “engage to the point of encouraging conversation betweencommenters (though they may undertake that on their own).” And she is a fairly strict moderator: “[I] won’t allow people to insult or flame or post things that are demonstrably incorrect.”
As she wrote to me over email: “That’s in part because allowing that sort of commentary doesn’t lean toward the kind of community I want on my page, and also because correcting people in-comment with cites to the accurate literature takes more time than I can spare.”
Looking to engage
Monica Guzman, a tech and media columnist at GeekWire, The Daily Beast, and the Columbia Journalism Review, believes that writers should respond to any smart comments. “It shows you’re listening, which improves the conversation,’ she said. “Plus it encourages civil conversation over time and connects more deeply with people who are taking the time to engage with your story.”
However, that policy comes with two caveats: “Only respond to the thoughtful comments, and respond with gratitude.”
So what’s the bottom line? Led the situation guide you. The amount of extra time you have in your workday, the quality of the comments on sites you write for, and your own personal preference will help you determine how much time you should spend in the comments.
Just don’t waste a lot of time interacting with trolls. Whether I asked four writers or 400 hundred writers, I think that’s something just about all writers can agree on.