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What role does social media have in journalism?

Beyond the cattle call of reader comments and discussion, the last four years of social media development have seen platforms like Facebook and Twitter become a place for consumers of content to interact.

As a result the need for blogs and publications to give audiences a place for discussion is no longer as pressing. A sentiment articulated by technology site Recode this week when they eliminated their comments section.

In a blog post, editors Walt Mosberg and Kara Swisher said,

“We thought about this decision long and hard, since we do value reader opinion. But we concluded that, as social media has continued its robust growth, the bulk of discussion of our stories is increasingly taking place there, making onsite comments less and less used and less and less useful.”

So what does this move mean? Is this the end of the comments thread? Not necessarily.

Fellow technology publication The Verge has a big focus on forums and threads for its users to interact with one another on the site. With sections like Apple Core, Googleplex and Microsoft Tribe, the folks at the Verge have siphoned off certain topics to make it easier for users to find others with similar interests and opinions. These tribes have been a big part of what’s made the site so successful. From day one, its users have felt free to express themselves on the forums, sometimes in incredibly creative ways.

However The Verge, which is now three years old, built this community back in 2011, at a time when Facebook was still moderately enjoyable to use, and Twitter was still finding its feet and figuring out what it wanted to be. In just three years the way publications interact with social media has completely turned around.

So, if you’re building a new blog or publication, should you even bother trying to build a native community of commenters?

“It depends on the ultimate objective of the blog”, says social media commentator and Managing Director of Dialogue Consulting, Matthew Cox. “You need to ask what role engagement plays in serving the blog. Once you can answer that, you’re better placed to answer whether it should occur on site or not.”

Therefore the answer is instead a set of questions. What does your audience want, and where are they?

For a site like Recode which is relatively new, building a community from scratch is a long term commitment, and they may be too late to the game for that to be of any real benefit. Recode, being essentially a rebirth of the site “All Things D” which Mossberg and Swisher formerly ran, means it has a pre-established audience they’ve carried over. Therefore there’s little need to build a fresh community on their site.

Plus there is perhaps more benefit for news sites to push for social media engagement rather than that of native engagement. Regardless of whether a site has a comments section or not, users are having discussions about the content on platforms like Twitter and Facebook as well as sharing the content there as well.

By discussing a story they’ve just read on a social platform, they are in essence sharing your story with their network, and if it prompts a discussion then that’s ongoing promotion for your content. Social media also provides readers with a more direct form of interaction with the authors of content as Mossberg and Swisher note.

“Our writers are all active on services like Twitter and Facebook, and our official Re/code accounts on social media post our stories all day long. Readers aren’t shy about offering their opinions to us on these and other social media services, and you are likelier to be able to interact with us there.”

However, communities are still useful to some ventures. Using a community to provide feedback that helps you iterate a product, or provide customer service is a great value proposition that allows you to control the user experience, and create a direct connection with your user base. But for news sites in this day in age, there is less appeal than ever in maintaining the old fashioned comments box.

By relegating discussion to social media, the chances of your content being shared or stumbled across by other users increases, and it takes away yet another stream of content for a publication to look after.

For Recode it provides them with the ability to focus on creating content engaging enough for people to discuss and share on social media. It’s a commentary on the value of keeping reader comments on site, and the importance of pushing content into the social sphere.

That said, feel free to comment below…