The vexing issue of managing football comments on a newspaper website
It was sparked by the news that the Daily Record has suspended comments on football articles, because, in their own words:
“We continue to see an unacceptable level of behaviour that breaches our terms and conditions. We are talking about personal abuse directed against other users and members of our staff, foul language, hate speech [and] sectarianism.”
The Scottish situation is slightly more complex for news outlets than in England. The law has reacted to fans of the two biggest clubs indulging in sectarian abuse with the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act 2012, which came into force earlier this year. This makes the role of moderation at the Daily Record more likely to need advice from the legal team.
Hosting football communities can be vexing and problematic.
When I worked at the BBC in the early 2000s, the 606 messageboards were one of the busiest areas of user-generated content on the site, and also one of the most problematic. The volume of comments and the level of moderation required made them a massive drain on technical and editorial resources, and a source of friction between the central new media department and BBC Sport when things weren’t working well. To complicate things, the audience weren’t shy of playing the “I pay my Licence Fee so how dare you censor me” card when moderated or banned, leading to lengthy exchanges of emails.
News organisations can host good sport and football community interactions. On Twitter Sean Ingle cited the Guardian’s county cricket blog, Joy of Six, Classic YouTube and ‘The forgotten story of...’ as areas where “it can be done. Not easy though.” In fact, just last week I’d had a good chat on the Guardian site under stories about Davide Gualtieri’s San Marino goal against England, and Kevin Keegan’s resignation as England manager.
But, with a period away from working in-house at a news organisation, my perception of user comments has shifted. I still miss them when I read a printed paper. However, when you work for a site running community areas, you tend to see the 2% of really good community interactions. You point at things like “Readers recommend”, where the community comes together to suggest songs for a playlist on a theme, and sometimes even gets to choose the end result.
Outside of the business though, you mostly see the 98%.
I read a newspaper story headline online, and immediately know that the comment section is going to be hateful, without even having to read it. It jars with me that I know what is going to be “below the line”, even if I don’t cast my eye there.
The 98% drowns out the 2%.
So why is it that news organisations have struggled to build good communities on their websites?
I think volume is the big problem here. Everything about the news media transitioning from print-only to “digital first” has been about volume. About producing an ever greater volume of content to attract an ever greater volume of eyeballs to generate fractions of pennies and cents on serving volumes of advertising. About prioritising writing articles that will generate 500 angry, troll-ish comments as a by-product of the page views it will get, rather than investing the time to only hand select ten really great responses to publish.
For most news organisations the balance of community activity is all wrong.
There are millions of users who can potentially behave in a disruptive manner, hundreds of journalists publishing articles, and a handful of staff dedicated to moderating or shaping the community interaction that goes on at the foot of the articles.
If I was starting a site where I wanted to grow a great community, I’d be hiring more people to manage, nurture and promote the community activity than I would be hiring people to generate content. News organisations are set up in exactly the opposite structure.
The trouble for news organisations isn’t that people are complete dickwads online - although that doesn’t help. The trouble is that community and comment threads are something added on to what they see as their primary purpose, not their primary purpose.
And that doesn’t scale.