The Economist is trying to figure out what its new comment section should look like, experimenting on platforms like Quora.
The publisher began experimenting with Quora last August when deputy editor Tom Standage used the platform to answer questions about artificial intelligence and The Economist’s digital strategy. Questions such as how the publisher is managing the transition from print to digital received north of 160,000 views. In total, Standage’s questions have had 1.5 million views.
“We were really impressed with the quality and specificity of the questions and how engaged people were on the platform,” said Denise Law, community editor at The Economist. “Clearly, [Quora] has built a community of smart people, which attracts experts; we’ve not been able to build a similar environment on the Economist.com.”
Currently, registered Economist users (who can read three articles a week in exchange for an email address) and subscribers leave 3,000 comments a week on average on The Economist’s site. But the technology powering the comments section needs improvement, and the comments themselves haven’t been as useful or insightful as the publisher has found on other platforms.
Since August, The Economist has run five more Quora Q&A sessions with its correspondents, including Henry Tricks, the energy and commodities editor; and data journalist Idrees Kahloon, whose questions received 5 million views in total, with this one on the accuracy of political polls receiving 1.6 million views. Now, The Economist is planning one of these sessions a month moving forward.
The appeal of Quora is the direct connection to The Economist’s correspondents, who traditionally don’t have bylines. Law said the publisher, which has worked on the new comments section since the beginning of 2017, is looking into whether it can incorporate the Q&A function more natively into the new comments section.
Compared to Medium, where The Economist is publishing articles and receiving high-quality comments, or Facebook Groups, where it encourages discussion between a range of opinions at scale, Quora can seem more limited in its functionality. But Quora has shed light on what interests The Economist’s readers: It’s not just about explaining monetary policy but how The Economist creates its journalism. This is in line with what it has learned from the popularity of its Inside The Economist blog published on Medium, which answers questions like how to write an obituary.
Quora and Medium both use real-name policies in their comments sections. Whether people should be able to hide behind anonymous quotes is a matter of internal debate, said Law, as is whether only subscribers should receive access to comments, which would act as an incentive to convert registered users.
After manually looking at a sample of 1,000 comments a few months ago, the publisher had to hide a handful that a third-party company flagged for violating The Economist’s policies. These were mostly from registered users. “People were registering just to leave a nasty comment,” said Law. Another consideration is that few people comment; in general, most of them enjoy reading the dialogue.
Ultimately, a more engaging comments section will drive subscribers. Other publishers are embracing their comments sections, too. For the Financial Times, readers who comment are seven times more engaged than those who don’t, spending more time on-site and returning more often. The New York Times has recently opened up comments on more of its articles to encourage more engagement.
“We invite people to disagree, as long as it’s insightful,” said Law. “We want it to be civil, a place of intelligence, where people can have a meaningful debate without being trolled.”