Reader comments are both the beauty and the bane of online Web sites.
On the one hand, they create the lively engagement that can make a ho-hum site a humdinger in the online community. On the other hand, site administrators have long lamented the policing required to ensure that reader comments don’t define (or detract from) the site itself.
But there’s more. As the technology of Web sites has grown, the reader comment arena has been moribund.
There may be help coming soon. A recent announcement that the New York Times and the Washington Post are teaming up with Mozilla to develop a content management platform bodes well for the format. It could, say people involved with the project, revolutionize the way publishers manage online comments and contributions from readers.
The effort is backed by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, an organization that provides funding for journalism innovation. The foundation will support the open source project with a $3.89 million grant.
Greg Barber, director of digital news projects and the project lead at The Washington Post, hopes the project will evolve as needs or publishers change. The current work program is expected to take about two years.
The proposed platform — built on open-source technology — will accept, store, moderate, and display reader contributions — from videos and images to comments and blog posts.
“Readers could take an existing story from a reporter and pivot it in another direction,” Barber said. “Other sites have experimented with annotations. We want publishers to have an option to display user contributions in whatever way it works for them.”
The Washington Post and The New York Times initiated discussions in November, 2013 after editors revealed the challenges they face with reader contributions. Not long after, Dan Sinker, head of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews initiative, stepped in to financially contribute to the collaborative research and to the project.
Barber said the group is at a stage when anything is possible and expectations are high.