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The Cesspit

Digital Thought
I refuse to think of online comments as society’s cesspit. There is value.

Hey there, in the last couple of weeks, online comments were the main focus of my work. On the one hand, we released a couple of improvements and new features to our commenting section on Blick.ch. (Read more about this here in German.) 
On the other hand, I had to answer some questions from persoenlich.com, which covers public relations, marketing, and media. And I was quite annoyed because their questions only focussed on pure numbers but not the value that online comments have.
So they invited me to write an op-ed on it. German-speaking subscribers can find it here, but I want to translate it for everybody else.
Some love them, and many hate them – the commenting sections on online news sites. There they are rambling, the angry, the mean-spirited, the hating people. A sinister snakepit, somewhere below the articles, where only the dark souls arrive.
Admittedly, this sounds dramatic, layered with some dripping pathos. However, the opinion on online comments is low – also in 2020. A while ago, a journalist wrote on Twitter: “I say it over and over again: If I’d be an editor-in-chief, there wouldn’t be any comments on my site.” 
Today, journalism cannot afford such an attitude. The internet not only democratized the public sphere to some degree but also introduced the era of interaction. It is a fallacy to think that closing the comment sections would be a solution. The debates simply emigrate: to the giants of Silicon Valley or, worse, in chats, concealed from society.
It is true, “the effort which is persued for online comments is significant,” as persoenlich.com writes. It is also true for us at Blick.ch. However, we are tempted to only focus on the raw numbers. More comments mean more clicks, more reach, more ad revenue. That notion is short-sighted.
Newsrooms need a fresh mindset. Comment sections are as much as articles a unique selling point. Crucial for brand perception. Therefore, the comment sections need attention, which goes further than deciding if a comment gets published or deleted. The presence of journalists can not be a luxury but a duty. The effect of counter-speech is well-documented, and a civil debate will not be created without active moderation.
Naturally, this means more effort. And the worst part is: This kind of communication is not scaleable. At the same time: There is value. To publicly face critics and answer the readers’ questions creates transparency, shows appreciation. It is a measure to fight journalism’s biggest challenge: the decline in trust.
Furthermore, this approach also comes with a competitive advantage. If we understand comments as a journalistic resource, we profit immediately. The contributors become potential sources. The moderators of Blick.ch are trained to spot possible inputs, and we build our infrastructure to guarantee a simple workflow to process these inputs. Dozens of stories, some scoops among them, have been published thanks to our approach.
In 2020, we should not still debate whether online comments are valuable or senseless. We should think about ways to counter the toxic tone. And we should think about how we can utilize comments – as an opportunity to build trust.
What do you think about online comments? Good thing or evil crap?
Let me know your thoughts by hitting reply.
Best, Janosch
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Janosch Troehler
Janosch Troehler @janoschtroehler

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