Gawker’s new comment system

Will it help or hurt the site's young writers?

Gawker Media publisher Nick Denton recently introduced a new commenting system, called Kinja, on his network of websites. Rather than showing all comments on a given article, Kinja shows only the most interesting thread of comments and replies. Denton hopes this will finally make reporters and sources pay attention to the comments instead of dismissing them; to help ensure that, he’s ordered his staff writers to reply to interesting comments on their articles.

“The goal is to erase the traditional distinctions between writers, editors, readers, subject, and sources,” Denton told CJR in a Gchat. At the same time, he insisted, “our goal is to help our writers each achieve greater influence and reach with the same amount of work.” So which is it—does Denton want to empower writers or replace them? It seems unlikely that Gawker will go the way of GOOD magazine, which eliminated the distinction between writers and readers by firing its editorial staff and replacing them with a discussion system for unpaid contributors. (When asked about GOOD, Denton replied that it “sounds like they were trying to put a high-tech complexion on an old-fashioned bankruptcy,” which suggests he doesn’t intend to mimic GOOD’s decisions.)

But it’s not clear whether the interaction with commenters that Kinja demands will benefit or hurt Gawker staffers.

What seems clear is that Gawker staffers will have to embrace Kinja if they want to keep their jobs. Gawker staffers who spoke to Kat Stoeffel , the New York Observer media reporter who published an article about Kinja last week, strongly suggested as much, and the pressure on writers seems likely to increase given Gawker’s lower-than-expected traffic numbers, obtained by CJR.

For the last few months, according to internal traffic stats from a former Gawker staffer, the Gawker network has missed its internal traffic goals for visitors from the US. In April, its traffic goal was 20.8 million unique visitors, but it received only 20.3 million visitors; in May, it expected 20.9 and received only 19.9 million visitors; and in June, it again aimed for 20.9 and received only 19 million visitors. (To be fair to Gawker, growth has flatlined across the Web.)

At Gawker, numbers like these can often mean someone’s job is in trouble. Not that fear for their livelihoods and constantly changing job descriptions are new for Denton’s employees, who are treated differently from most professional writers and reporters. “Gawker writers are hardly professional,” said former Gawker editor Choire Sicha, who now runs the website the Awl. “The guiding principles at Gawker are: People are pretty scared of Nick, people always feel they are about to be fired, and the job is shifting beneath their feet.” Still, these less-than-stellar stats will increase pressure on writers to adapt to Kinja. Responding to the low traffic numbers, Denton explained that “making the best sites we can should increase uniques.” For Denton, of course, a centerpiece of “the best sites” is Kinja.

So Gawker writers will embrace the new commenting platform. Whether this will help or hurt them depends to some degree on whether other, more prestigious news outlets—the kind of places that Gawker’s young writers aim to end up—follow Denton’s lead. If these sites try to maintain a sharp distinction between writers and commenters, then time spent replying to comments could be wasted time for Gawker’s young and ambitious writers.

Over the last decade, many Gawker staffers have gone on to choice jobs. Gabriel Snyder, a former editor, was scooped up by The Atlantic Wire, and he later hired away Gawker’s TV reviewer, Richard Lawson. Maureen O’Connor was recently picked up by New York Magazine to edit features for its fashion blog, The Cut. Alex Pareene, Gawker’s erstwhile politics editor, got a staff writing job at Salon, and his successor, Jim Newell, now contributes to Salon, Wonkette, and the Guardian. Elizabeth Spiers, Gawker’s first editor, is now editor-in-chief of the New York Observer.

If anyone were worried about the effects that Kinja could have on journalism, it would be these Gawker alums, who got hired by more established journalistic outlets on the strength of their writing. But most aren’t concerned. They’re apathetic.

“If editors are looking there for talent,” Pareene explained in an email, “I think they’ll continue to read the site the same way I still do, which is by reading the posts and ignoring everything beneath them.” He does not think editors at more established outlets—say, Salon—will look negatively on Gawker writers’ interactions with commenters. “I don’t really think mixing it up in the comments reflect poorly on a writer unless their comments are themselves poor. It shouldn’t be much more damaging than engaging with people on Twitter.” Newell agreed, writing in an email, “I don’t see any new commenting scheme changing the fact that a staff writing job at Gawker is a great place to write whatever you want and have your byline noticed.”

Kinja could even help writers land jobs. If other news organizations adopt similar comment systems, Gawker writers’ experience with the platform will become a valuable resume booster. But will other outlets follow Gawker’s lead? Denton thinks they will, once Kinja ushers in a new style of “public journalism” that will be more trustworthy than the traditional kind where reporters interview sources in private and then write about it. In Denton’s vision, sources are interviewed in the comments of posts; while a journalist directs the interview, the public gets to grill the source right alongside the professional journalist. “It’s time for the leakers and the moles to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of information; and it’s time for them to be subject to challenge, not just by their pet reporter, but by readers,” Denton said.

As an example of Kinja’s potential benefits, Denton points to Judith Miller’s credulous reporting on Ahmed Chalabi in The New York Times. “One assumes Ahmed Chalabi’s account was subject to some test by Judith Miller of the Times, the chosen vehicle for his propaganda about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction,” he wrote. “But not a sufficiently rigorous examination.” Had Chalabi been publicly interviewed by Miller and her readers in Kinja, Denton implied, maybe he would have been exposed.

Denton’s dream is unlikely to become reality anytime soon. There’s just no reason why sources, particularly sensitive and anonymous ones, would want to be interviewed in public. But it’s still possible that other news organizations will want to adopt Kinja-like commenting systems. It’s no secret that internet comment systems, particularly on mainstream news sites, are broken. Offensive and off-topic comments outnumber interesting comments so that the entire comment system is regarded as toxic and ignored by writers, which then leads to even more terrible comments from unregulated commenters. Sicha sums it up bluntly: “The comment space is treated like shit, so [commenters] act like shit.” Even if it doesn’t revolutionize journalism, Kinja could fix this problem, since it allows writers to control which comments are displayed. If Kinja does work, Gawker writers could find their commenter-engagement skills in high demand.

Clay Shirky, the NYU journalism professor and Future of News guru, thinks other sites should follow Gawker and try out new comment systems. “Gawker has demonstrated that it’s possible to be a large, high-traffic site, and still do considerable experimentation with comments,” he said. Could Kinja even come to the Times one day? Shirky demures. “My New Year’s resolution for 2012,” he explained, “is that when talking about the future of news, I won’t discuss The New York Times.” But, he added, “I think it will work for any place that has a lot of comments and a small group of users who control the comments,” a description that encompasses plenty of news sites and blogs that might look to Gawker writers for help transitioning to a new comment system.

If the rest of the Web follows Denton’s lead, then Kinja may simply be the next platform, like Wordpress or Twitter, that digital-age journalists need to learn. “These jobs we have as writers change, sometimes radically,” Sicha acknowledged. “Online-native outlets could just be the first to blur the line between writers and commenters.” Rather than herald the death of writers, the dawn of Kinja may just indicate that engaging with commenters will soon become a must-have skill.

This skill could help young reporters, insofar as it ensures they can get good jobs, but it won’t necessarily help them develop their reporting skills. Assuming that Denton’s “public journalism” doesn’t pan out and sources don’t line up in the comments to be grilled by Gawker reporters, it’s difficult to see how Kinja will make Gawker staffers into better journalists. Right now, young reporters often must write, blog, aggregate, and tweet, which leaves little time for actually reporting. Adding interaction with commenters to that list won’t help.

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Peter Sterne is an editorial intern at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @petersterne. Tags: , , , ,