How Gawker is pulling comments into its Facebook Instant Articles

For many publishers, comments are an important way to create reader engagement. There are few places where that’s more true than Gawker Media, where co-founder Nick Denton has made commenting a particular obsession, even building an in-house online commenting system, Kinja. The quality of that discussion doesn’t always carry over to Facebook, though.

So Gawker built a tool that pulls in the top 10 comment threads from its network of sites and displays them at the end of its Facebook Instant Articles. The tool also works on Gawker’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, Google’s new fast-loading article template.

“Our vision of news is as a continuous conversation between writers and readers,” Denton said. “We wanted to offer a fuller experience — wherever readers are.”

The feature speaks to a tension between publishers and Facebook as the platform increasingly inserts itself between publishers and their audiences. Publishers want to connect with readers there, but they don’t want to give up the qualities that make them unique and sacrifice a direct connection with readers. Facebook has made some concessions, such as giving publishers more leeway in selling ads in their Instant Articles and letting them test newsletter signups.

gawker comments
Comments appearing at the end of a recent Gawker Instant Article.

Gawker — which is in the process of a bankruptcy sale to Ziff Davis after being pummeled in court by wrestler Hulk Hogan — started posting to Instant Articles back in January despite Denton’s reluctance about being beholden to Facebook’s algorithm. To distribute off-platform without including discussions felt at odds with Gawker’s mission, said Lauren Bertolini, Gawker’s head of product, adding that 15 to 20 percent of visitors read comments on Gawker’s sites.

So Gawker’s tech team built a tool that pulls in comments. It’s not possible to comment straight on the Instant Article; people who want to add to the discussion have to log in on Gawker’s own sites.

It’s not clear if Gawker is unique in displaying comments in this way. Many large and mid-size publishers have requested Disqus comments support for Facebook Instant Articles, Google AMP and other platforms including Apple News, said Brian Falldin, director of product marketing at Disqus, an online commenting system used by many publishers. Disqus supports Google AMP but hasn’t gotten the green light from Facebook, he said.

Similarly, Spot.IM, an online engagement platform that works with publishers, is testing an effort to port their online discussions to Instant Articles and AMP pages, said Nadav Shoval, CEO and co-founder of Spot.IM. “Publishers want the ability to control their audience,” he said. “It’s important for them to have some kind of engagement on their properties.”

Facebook just announced that it would give more weight to people’s posts over publishers in users’ news feeds, and Denton said he expects that the inclusion of comments will cause time spent on Gawker articles to go up and in turn help Gawker articles get prioritized by Facebook. (There’s a financial angle, too: Facebook limits the number of ads that can run in Instant Articles, so by lengthening the article with the comments, more ads can fit in each article.) At the same time, he still wants to manage Gawker’s dependence on Facebook.

“I’m glad that each of our brands has a strong position in its category, whether that’s tech or sports, a dedicated audience, and healthy direct and search traffic,” he said. “I would not want to be dependent on Facebook, because news is not its priority, but growth in users and user engagement.”

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