The first question should be this: What is the goal your organization hopes to achieve with its commenting section? Do you want to engage your readers? Build a community? Consider the following.

First, determine your organization’s goal with its commenting section. Gary Graham, editor of the Spokesman-Review in Washington state, admits that “community engagement is a buzz phrase these days.” However, he said that’s the best definition of what his paper is aiming for with its commenting section. “We’re just trying to get people to talk with us,” he said.

To achieve this, the publication recently removed comments on national and wire stories, which attracted polarized unproductive conversations, and moved comments from beneath local stories to a separate discussion page. “We want to encourage more constructive and civil discourse on local issues of importance and interest to readers in our region,” Graham wrote.

For The Washington Post, New York Times and Mozilla project, the most ambitious goal is to “create a feature that would efficiently highlight the most relevant and pertinent reader comments on an article,” Paul Farhi writes.

Next, understand the distinction between an audience and a community. Annmarie Dooling, a community strategist who has worked with The Huffington Post, and Yahoo, said that just because a news organization has an audience does not mean it has a community. “An engaged audience and a community are two totally different things,” she said. An engaged audience is “more about one-on-one communication” while a community “revolves around the idea of group think.”

During a July 23 #WJChat with ProPublica’s senior engagement editor Amanda Zamora, tweeters discussed the subject of audience versus community. #WJChat participants attributed more value to communities than audiences, noting that community members participate, engage and are invested and willing to listen, read and contribute.

Zamora tweeted: “You can scale a cheap audience, or develop a more valuable community.

To develop a valuable community requires engaging with members of it and getting them to engage with each other.

So, what exactly is community engagement?  Community engagement means news organizations are making it a top priority to listen,  join, lead and enable conversation to elevate journalism, writes Steve Buttry.

This means not only affording readers the opportunity to discuss content via comments, but also listening to what they have to say. Engaged readers can introduce new story ideas, point to errors and fix the facts. “I’ve seen a number of examples of significant errors in research being discovered through comments on scientific articles and blogs, something that is arguably similar to the peer-review process,” writes Mathew Ingram for Gigaom.

Do you want to engage your readers or encourage them to take action?Many organizations cite “engagement,” but what they actually mean is “action,” writes Dooling, who specializes in audience development and social journalism. “They want to motivate their readers to do something, whether that action is clicking a share button, emailing a tip, or contributing some form of user generated content. You want them to spend more time reading, and to have some connection to the work you’re doing, maybe by being a fan of a writer, or signing up for a newsletter.”

To Dooling’s point, commenting sections can support strategic goals outside of community engagement. Commenting sections can also collect new information, provide opportunities for targeted advertising and increase traffic and pageviews with returning users, which was a goal that was ranked important in a small poll I conducted with news organizations.

Where a news organization chooses to host its commenting section can also impact the traffic to its website. “You want reader-to-reader discussion around the topics your organization cares about, and may not want another platform to own those conversations,” Dooling writes.

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