‘Comments are content’ for local news sites: 8 tips to build community, coverage

What types of stories get comment traction on hyperlocal sites? Block by Block (BxB) surveyed independent, community news site publishers about their top reader engagement tools, and 100 percent of respondents said the comments feature on their CMS platform is enabled, making it the #1 tool for reader engagement.

The BxB independent publisher community recently chatted on Twitter about the value of reader comments on their local news site: It’s a treasure-trove of news tips, community building and engagement, and site innovation. Tracy Record of West Seattle Blog said it best: “Comments are content.”

Publishers who weighed in were: Tracy Record at West Seattle Blog (WA), Ben Ilfeld at Sacramento Press (CA), Andre Natta of The Terminal (AL), Mark Loundy, media consultant and former content editor of Backfense, Debra Galant of Baristanet (NJ), and Tammy Daniels of iBerkshires (MA), and Mike Orren of Pegasusnews (TX).

1 Keep content civic-minded, varied Types of stories publishers said have generated heavy comments: Transportation, local breaking news (especially if it impacts road traffic), civic controversies, development, politics, and direct impact of local government budget cuts. Andre Natta of Birmingham, Ala., The Terminal says readers appreciate comments sections as a place for civic-minded conversation. Note: Ben Ilfeld at Sacramento Press said the most commented story on his site was over comments themselves after posting the article “Cultivating a healthy comments ecosystem.” For soft news items, Deb Galant at Baristanet said their regular “name this drink” contest gets a heavy reader response; and new restaurants get comments at West Seattle Blog.

2 Comments as community building Ben Ilfeld says comments = friends, interactivity and motivation, as well as community, sources and content.

3 Comments lead to story tips, further coverage Ilfeld said he often expands coverage in response to great comment questions. Record receives story leads or follow-up ideas weekly from comments.

4 Comments as “backmarketing” Record is using an old trick from her broadcast days when a story was generated through a tipline and that was mentioned. Disclose the path of the story. If it originated in the comments section, say so.

5 Comments as crowdsourcing In true collaborative spirit, when local breaking news happens, commenters often update readers with minute-by-minute posts, such as changes in traffic routes or weather-related power outages.

6 Moderated comments: Quality over quantity Keeping conversation local, focused and respectful fosters community building. Mass comments with off-topic ranters, people who claim “First!” as the first to comment, etc. do nothing to build community among readers. Many independent community news publishers implement a Terms of Service agreement that may include no racism, sexism, sizism, no third-party accusations, and a request to maintain civility. Some sites use automated and human filtering to avoid trolls.

“There may be an undiscovered rule that if a forum cannot be cost-effectively moderated then it’s insufficiently local” — Mark Loundy, former content editor Backfence.com.

“This is a great way to distinguish yourselves from MSM sites where comments can be awful. [Comments there are unproductive] for a variety of reasons, the chief one I think being the fact that they’re totally unmoderated.” Anna Tarkov, new journalism community builder, freelance writer

7 Reward good comments Encourage comments that stay on-topic, add value to the conversation, are thought-provoking. Baristanet has a popular “featured comment” section that rewards clever, on-point comments, publisher Deb Galant said. Good comments at Sacramento Press are placed on the site’s front and splash pages and comment authors are alerted immediately via e-mail.

8 Respond to individual comments for engagement Mike Orren at Pegasusnews has a “lone commenter” feature on his CMS platform that alerts his staff to items more than hour old where there is only one comment and whether encouragement or help can be offered. Natta at The Terminal writes a personal welcome e-mail to new commenters on his site.  Daniels at iBerkshires says she gets good feedback when she responds to a comment.

@annatarkov and @michelemclellan contributed to this list.

Also see Poynter article on framework for fostering better comments section conversations.

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