Some news organizations in India are taking a second look at the comment sections on their websites after ignoring, and in some cases shutting them down only a few years ago. As ad revenue shrinks, there’s growing urgency to create direct reader revenue through engaged audiences.
Scroll.in recently deployed an in-house comment engine on its site — a feature that wasn’t previously available on the five-year-old news service. The News Minute, which focuses on South India, launched with comments but pulled it down several months after going live. It will soon introduce a debate section for paid subscribers on its app, according to its CEO and co-founder Vignesh Vellore.
“What is happening now is that all publications want interactions on site. Interactivity increases time spent and engagement,” says Sanjay Sindhwani, CEO of Indian Express Digital. “Facebook traffic is not coming back. And with mobile, time spent has gone down and engagement has become shorter.“ The Indian Express currently hosts comments on its website using a third-party comment engine.
Conversations about the utility of comment sections began globally around 2014, and soon global publishers such as Reuters, NPR, Mic and Bloomberg all dropped their comments sections.
Publishers noticed that discussions were moving from news sites to social networks, while comments sections were turning into spaces for trolling. More importantly, publishers found it difficult to moderate comments at scale.
In 2016, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers published a report questioning the purpose of comments. It noted that “in addition to potential brand damage, managing on-line comments is simply not a priority for many news organizations.”
Vignesh Vellore of the News Minute hopes their new approach of letting paid subscribers debate and comment on their app will help the company address moderation and keeping trolls away.
“We stopped hosting comments because we turned the website into an infinite scroll. It made sense from a marketing perspective because advertising and sponsored content is a major revenue stream,” says Vellore.
IE Online’s Sindhwani agrees that page views are important, “In an advertising model, page views is the currency that converts to ad dollars. PVs are driven by search and social traffic. Exclusivity of content and quality of engagement are low on priority. The ROI on comments isn’t high enough.”
“Most small newsrooms don’t look at comments on the website,” says Mithun Kidambi, head of product and revenue at The Wire, which uses a third-party comment engine moderated by senior editors in the newsroom. “Bigger newsrooms with engagement teams do look at numbers beyond page views. But I am not sure whether it translates to strategies. It is more a daily operational requirement and not necessarily strategic. The business logic is divorced from engagement data, except for videos,” he adds.
But can hosting comments help build communities on news sites?
Sindhwani acknowledges the role of community and engagement. “If packaged well, publishers can extract good value from comments by bringing out good ones and promoting healthy conversations with limited resources,” he said.
Referring to ET Prime, a subscription product of the Times Group, where Sidhwani used to be the business head, he says, “Sometimes comments were more analytical and incisive than the published article.”
“News organizations are interested in building communities because they can potentially help generate user revenue. And if done right, this has the potential to become a substantial revenue stream,” says Kidambi at The Wire.
Sandeep Amar, CEO of Inaaj, a technology services company for news organizations based in New Delhi, believes news organizations in India are trying to build communities on sites by opening comment sections. But he isn’t hopeful. “On sites such as pagalguy.com, an education discussion forum, where an extremely engaged community exists, user generated content helps bring together community and identify experts from within the community, (but) news sites don’t navigate that way,” he says.
“Right now, engagement is reactionary and retrospective for news organizations,” says Anshul Tewari, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Youth Ki Awaaz, a platform that publishes user generated news, analysis, and commentary. “Communities expect to hear back a lot more than traditional newsrooms are communicating. Not just, ‘what is up?’ They want to know what they can do to help the organization beyond paying for content. Traditional news organizations think that creating good content will have people coming and engaging.”
The bigger challenge for news organizations, according to Tewari, is what to do with the community. “Content is not a call to action. News organizations can’t promise social impact. Then how do you retain the audience and consistently add value?” he asks.