Last Friday, TheAtlantic.com replaced reader comments with a new Letters section, similar to the print version of the magazine. According to editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg in the February 2 announcement, the new Letters section ‘will feature the smartest, most compelling responses to our journalism. It will be a venue for respectful dialogue, criticism, meaningful observations, and challenging ideas.’ In his column, Goldberg assures readers their input is important, and the magazine believes Letters will be a better, more civil way to share thoughts and opinions.
The Atlantic joins a host of other publications who have also turned off their comments – The Verge, Popular Science, Reuters, Recode and Bloomberg. Goldberg explained why.
‘We’ve also made the not-unrelated decision to close our comments section. Over the years, robust conversation in The Atlantic comments section has too often been hijacked by people who traffic in snark and ad hominem attacks and even racism, misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish invective,’ Goldberg wrote.
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‘Instead of hosting these sorts of unhelpful, even destructive, conversations on TheAtlantic.com, we are choosing now to elevate respectful, intelligent discourse and argument. We want smart and critical readers to have a more visible role on our site, and we’re looking forward to hearing from you, and publishing you,’ said Goldberg.
According to Nieman Lab, print and digital staff will read the letters and choose those that will be published, some of which will be published as stand-alone articles with design elements similar to an article written by The Atlantic. The articles may also be published on the site’s home page and shared on the magazine’s social medial platforms.
In an interview with Ricardo Bilton for Nieman Lab, TheAtlantic.com editor Adrienne LaFrance said the purpose of these decisions is multi-fold. Thoughtful comments will not be treated as afterthoughts at the bottom of articles, but instead will be treated like regular articles, making them easier to find by other readers.
‘We have such smart readers and they add so much to our journalism, whether they’re praising us, criticizing us, or just adding a new perspective. It’s all very valuable,’ said LaFrance.
As of 1:30 p.m. yesterday, TheAtlantic.com has published six letters:
- Leaving America Behind Amid the Turmoil of 1968
- The Case for Tom Brady
- Where Charter Schools Fall
- The Crow that Hates Falafel
- Bilingual Education Should Be Available to All Children
- Discussions of America Citizenship and Belonging Must Include Native Populations
Most of the letters are for past stories, with the exception of the Tom Brady letter which was written in response to LaFrance’s article last week on why the New England Patriots quarterback is so disliked.
As we noted above, TheAtlantic.com is only the latest in a long string of publications doing away with comments. Some have done it creatively like Tablet magazine who, in 2015, started charging readers by the comment or monthly or yearly. The thinking that charging commenters would weed out anonymous posters with inappropriate or offensive posts. In 2016, Alaska Dispatch News joined Willamette Week and Register Guard in experimenting with Civil Comments, a peer-review commenting platform. In December 2017, Civil Comments shut its doors, unable to find a sustainable business model without enough publishers willing to pay for their comment moderation system.
Many of the publications who have stopped accepting comments online accept them on their social media platforms instead. This allows for more centralized comment moderation and, in the case of Facebook, some assurance that the commenters are real people.
As long as there are people with opinions, there will be comments to moderate. The questions publishers must ask themselves are: 1) how much they value reader feedback, 2) what resources they are willing to use to manage comments, and 3) what is the trade-off of moderating comments via social media versus managing them on the publisher’s site. While there are many methods for managing comments (e.g., turning them off, turning most of them off, a Letters section), each solution should be tailored to each publisher’s individual needs, goals and values.