Reimagining The “Public” In Public Radio

Nov 1, 2016

In making the announcement, NPR cited three main reasons.In late August, NPR announced that it was discontinuing the feature on NPR.org that enabled visitors to make public comments about its online news stories. The announcement surprised me. After all, it seems antithetical for an organization with the word “public” in its very name to eliminate a mechanism for receiving public feedback.

Number one: The comments sections were being used by very few people. When NPR crunched the numbers they found that just 4,300 users posted about 145 comments apiece, or 67 percent of all comments for this past June and July. More than half of all comments in May, June and July combined came from a mere 2,600 users -- 0.003 percent of the 79.8 million NPR.org users who visited the site during that period.

Like NPR, at JPR we're experimenting with new online tools that keep us connected to and engaged with our audience.

Number two: With the growing popularity of social media platforms, there are better ways for the NPR audience to engage with NPR content. NPR currently hosts 30 different Facebook pages and more than 50 Twitter accounts as well as having a presence on Snapchat, Instagram and Tumblr. Twitter alone attracts over 5 million people each month who engage with NPR content, according to Scott Montgomery, NPR’s Managing Editor for Digital News. Montgomery says that NPR is also exploring other promising engagement tools, such as Hearken, a platform created in 2015 which solicits questions from the public for a news organization’s reporters to answer.

Number three: The comments sections at NPR.org never achieved NPR’s goal of fostering constructive civic conversations. When NPR launched its comments sections in 2008, it idealistically announced, “We are providing a forum for infinite conversations on NPR.org. Our hopes are high. We hope the conversations will be smart and generous of spirit. We hope the adventure is exciting, fun, helpful and informative.” The reality of what the comments sections had become was best summed up by Mike Durio, a listener from Phoenix, Arizona who wrote to NPR Ombudsman, Elizabeth Jensen, back in April saying: “The comments have devolved into the Punch-and-Judy-Fest of moronic, un-illuminating observations and petty insults I’ve seen on other, pretty much every other, Internet site that allows comments. This is not in keeping with NPR’s take-a-step-back, take-a-deep-breath reporting …” Another NPR.org user wrote NPR imploring: “Remove the comments section from your articles. The rude, hateful, racist, judgmental comments far outweigh those who may want to engage in some intelligent sideline conversation about the actual subject of the article. I am appalled at the amount of ‘free hate’ that is found on a website that represents honest and unbiased reporting such as NPR …”

JPR’s own experience over the years soliciting meaningful public input through our website and digital platforms has mostly mirrored NPR’s experience. When we launched JEFFNET in 1995 as a way to provide Internet service to rural communities in Southern Oregon we also created listener forums that we hoped would stimulate thoughtful discourse and informed civic debate about important community issues. But those forums, which morphed into a comments feature for our individual stories, never really caught on. And, the comments that we did receive were generally from a very small, narrow cross section of our audience.

Like NPR, at JPR we’re experimenting with new online tools that keep us connected to and engaged with our audience. Recently, JPR Producer Emily Cureton has been using Google Surveys to solicit listener input on topics we plan to cover on our weekday public affairs program, The Jefferson Exchange. These surveys have helped provide regional context for our reporting while also providing data, insight and potential new sources for our work.

In summarizing the reaction of NPR staff and listeners about the elimination of the comments sections on NPR.org, Sara Goo, NPR’s Deputy Managing Editor for Digital, wrote, “The response has been interesting in that most of our audience has reached the same conclusion that we did — disappointment.” She added, “We all so badly want, philosophically, for our web site to be a public square of smart ideas and commentary and interaction with us and with each other. A forum of diverse views. But the data makes clear it just wasn’t that.”

Based on my experience reading some of the comments at NPR.org and our own experience here at JPR, I believe NPR’s decision is a good one. I also believe the public radio community needs to work together to find new ways to engage our listeners in our collective work with the goal of building understanding and tolerance for diverse perspectives in an increasingly diverse society.

Paul Westhelle is JPR’s Executive Director.