Two weeks ago Newsnet Scotland announced an experiment in comment policy. We can now give a preliminary report on its operation.
Our prime responsibility is to our readership, and this is a much wider group than just those who post here. Site visitors who post comments make up approximately one in five hundred of those who read the site.
We are well aware that readers come to this site not just to read the articles, but to read the hugely informative posts about these articles submitted by many posters. We are also well aware, from consumer feedback, that many readers find relentless negativity off-putting (as the Scottish electorate itself did in May 2011, and has since).
Comments lend ‘life’ to an article and thus opinions, additional information and discussion can enhance an article beyond mere numbers.
However we also have to recognise that whilst excessively partisan comments, and esoteric debates between posters may be satisfying to the contributors, it may not be to the general readership.
One of our longest serving posters recently commented “Personally, I love the cut and thrust of debating the finer points of policy with supporters of other parties, but I’m not sure that it actually helps persuade anybody of anything – other than politics is for nerds!”
Our intention is to provide, through articles and comments, the best forum for news from the perspective of Scottish autonomy, available to those concerned for Scotland’s future. To do that, we are willing to experiment with different comment policies – well in advance of the latter stages of the referendum debate..
In March, we made clear our view that those who posted comments should consider themselves as ambassadors for their arguments – be they Unionist, Independence or Devo-Max.
As administrators and guardians of the site, those in charge of Newsnet Scotland need to constantly consider how best to improve and maintain comment quality.
There have been many interesting suggestions from readers and these have been considered. There have also been many critical comments from people understandably angry that some limitations have been placed on their ability to post comments. Many were frustrated at the lack of feedback to the many criticisms of the delay trial, however we wanted to be in a position to analyse comment effect as best we could before responding.
Given our very limited resources we simply have to recognise that we have restraints on what we can do. We do not enjoy the funding of the BBC, nor do we levy any charges on readers who enjoy passive reading of articles or more lively interaction, and as such we have to prioritise accordingly.
One option we considered would have been to tighten moderation policy further, or to have adopted the policy of other sites where all comments are moderated prior to publication.
These seemed inappropriate, given the generally high quality of contributions from many posters. An alternative was to try to limit the frequency with which posts could be made, and thus to allow posters time to develop their contributions.
The latter option is the one we chose. From emails received, and our own observations, we are satisfied that, although there have been fewer posts, that the standard of comments has been high.
The number of unique visitors to the site (the critical measure for any influence we have) has shown neither drop nor rise. However repeat visits has shown a drop of around ten per cent, which was not unexpected.
Revenue stream has not suffered to any great extent, although more time would be required in order to determine patterns. There have been less than a handful of people who have decided they no longer wish to donate to the site.
The selection of a 30 minute limit was wholly arbitrary, once the delay experiment had been decided upon then a period of delay was necessary.
In order to further analyse the overall effect of comments we will, from today, reduce the delay to 15 minutes. This will continue for the remaining two week period of the test. At the end of our trial we will further analyse the results and take a decision on how best to continue.
We would not be entirely honest if we did not acknowledge that, important though comments are, the site’s number one priority is to provide quality news and opinion.
Over the last few weeks readers would have noticed contributions from many hitherto unknown names – including Bob Duncan, Alex Robertson and Andrew Barr. We were also fortunate to receive an article from respected journalist George Kerevan.
We pay some writers a very modest fee for news articles and others provide their work entirely for free, from time to time we commission work from people like Lesley Riddoch and David Torrance. The site continues to be administered by the people who brought it to life, and a small team of backend volunteers give of their time for free.
It’s an important mix and one that requires careful management and, at times, hard decisions that may not always meet with universal agreement.
Each day thousands of readers log in and are presented with news and opinion from a different perspective to that offered by Scotland’s main stream news vendors. We remain the largest independence supporting news outlet and are currently seeking clarification from the BBC on why we continue to be ignored when headlines are being reviewed and previewed.
We do not and will not charge for the service we provide. Our mantra is simple – if you like what you see then feel free to donate to ensure the voice and views of those without a voice continue to be articulated.
The alternative is to have the news agenda dominated by BBC Scotland, the Scotsman, the Herald and the Daily Record.
Thanks for your support and for your open, honest and well intentioned views.