NPR ditches on-site comments, goes all-in on social media

The website of National Public Radio (NPR), npr.org, receives upwards of 30 million unique visitors each month, but as of next Tuesday, those visitors won’t be able to engage with NPR and other visitors through on-site comments.

In an announcement, the non-profit, which distributes news and other content to more than 900 public radio stations, explained that it has “concluded that the comment sections on NPR.org stories are not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of our users.”

Noting that “far less” than 1% of npr.org’s audience participates in on-site comments, Scott Montgomery, NPR’s Managing Editor for Digital News, explained that the organization believes social media is a far more effective channel for engagement.

“We’ve reached the point where we’ve realized that there are other, better ways to achieve the same kind of community discussion around the issues we raise in our journalism,” he told NPR’s Ombudsman/Public Editor, Elizabeth Jensen. “In relative terms, as we set priorities, it becomes increasingly clear that the market has spoken. This is where people want to engage with us. So that’s what we’re going to emphasize.”

Commenting on NPR.org.

Commenting on NPR.org.

According to Montgomery, NPR runs more than 30 Facebook Pages and 50 Twitter accounts, and is active on Snapchat, Instagram and Tumblr as well. NPR’s main Facebook Page “reaches more than 5 million people and recently has been the springboard for hundreds of hours of live video interaction and audience-first projects such as our 18,000-member ‘Your Money and Your Life’ group.”

Montgomery also noted that NPR reporters regularly interact with its audience through their personal accounts on social platforms.

Not surprisingly, many of those using NPR’s on-site comments to respond to the announcement weren’t happy with the decision, and some suggested that NPR made a miscalculation by concluding that the low percentage of commenters was a legitimate metric on which to base a decision. One, Neil Ormos, wrote:

I read the story comments frequently, but post only when I have something unique to contribute. Since I am often a few hours late to the party, someone else has, usually, already posted what I might have had I been first. Reliance on the number of unique users who have posted in all of three consecutive months is misplaced, for that number does not tell us how many users have read and obtained some value from the comments…

Giving up on owned media?

There are numerous arguments that can be made against NPR’s decision to ditch on-site comments and go all-in on social media, but perhaps the strongest is that NPR doesn’t own the social channels it will now force its audience to use if they want to engage in dialog around NPR’s content.

The 5 million users NPR’s primary Facebook Page reaches belong to Facebook, not NPR, as, technically, do the comments they post about NPR on Facebook. NPR’s continued ability to reach those users is largely out of its control, and changes Facebook makes to its service could impact NPR’s ability to offer users a quality experience for engagement.

In effect, NPR is giving up a key owned media asset through which it can build and control user engagement. Time will tell if that was a savvy or foolish move.

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