The Wall Street Journal has introduced a new comments strategy in order to drive a higher quality of debate on its site and improve the experience for subscribers.

Since last month, the publisher has reduced how many articles it opens for comments and put them all behind a paywall — a strategy that’s starting to pay off. The publisher has claimed a higher number of subscribers now reading and writing comments, from a broader demographic than previously.

The Dow Jones publisher introduced a number of changes last month: the first, making commenting for paying members only. Previously, all articles were open for comments by default, but that has now tightened to around 30 major news stories and opinion pieces, roughly 40% of daily output depending on the news cycle. These stories that are open for audience posts are clearly marked. Conversations from each audience post-enabled article are kicked off with a question from the journalist.

The number of people reading the comments has increased by 5%, according to the publisher, though it wouldn’t reveal from what base. The number of people posting, liking or replying has also gone up more than 5%. Meanwhile, the people who comment are younger and more female-skewed than before, although it wouldn’t share specific numbers.

“Broadly speaking, in the news business, we need to understand what the audience likes to do and reflect that,” said Louise Story, WSJ editor of newsroom strategy. “You have a public that really likes to participate in the conversation. They are looking for a more thoughtful place. That was the opportunity we saw. We’re increasingly focusing on our members — two-way interaction with our audience — and what that means.”

Publishers like The New York Times and The Financial Times have encouraged more debate on their own platforms to improve the experience for paying readers. Subscribers who get value from reading and posting comments tend to view more articles and return more regularly, a clear indicator they are less likely to churn. The Wall Street Journal currently has 2.6 million members; 1.8 million of those are paid digital-only subscribers, according to PwC figures supplied by the publisher.

Improving comment sections can also help inform and shape future story ideas. Enough interaction and debate on a story shows there’s more to be written. Last week, a story about the College Board’s plans to give “adversity scores” to students had over 2,000 comments. This led to another story on students that get extra time to take the SAT, which had over 800 comments and included reader polls to feed into further reporting. This article outlined the results. In the summer, the Journal plans to roll out video and audio posts that display conversations. Story stressed this is the first step in focusing on building community between paying members and journalists and between the members themselves.

The new strategy introduced in April was the results of five months of research that the Journal embarked on in November. The process proved a number of hypotheses: There’s a much bigger audience that wants to contribute than those who do. Of those who are heavy commenters, a small percentage don’t tend to read the whole article before voicing their views. Heavy commenters also tend to reply to others rather than posting original comments. This cohort has a higher frequency of breaching the Journal’s community guidelines, which prevent abusive posts.

Over the last month, The Wall Street Journal made further tweaks based on audience feedback. It has lengthened the time that people can comment on stories from 48 hours to four days because people reading in print, which is sometimes published a few days later than online, found that by the time they read the story the commenting function had closed.

When people submit a thought-provoking comment the publisher highlights the post and shares it on its social accounts and in its newsletters. The Journal’s daily newsletter, The 10-Point, links to the audience conversation about a story have had higher click-through rates than the story itself, according to the publisher.

The team moderating the comments, now called the audience voice team, has grown from three part-timers to six full-time staff since November. Two more hires are on the way. All have editorial backgrounds. The goal, said Story, is to scout for interesting and newsworthy stories rather than act as gatekeepers.

Like most publishers, The Wall Street Journal uses a combination of technology and human moderation to ensure people don’t break community guidelines and veer into unpleasant comments. The quality has improved because now every audience post begins with a question from a journalist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of times a user flags an inappropriate post has reduced partly because the Journal also incentivizes thoughtful posts by highlighting them.

“That carrot increases the quality,” said Story. “We’re feeding this back into reporting. It is better when we include the audience. Stories that are more interesting and relevant to journalists mean the audience is also more invested and more likely to stay.”

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