The old Internet maxim “Never read the comments” exists for a reason. While the comment section of any piece of journalism can be a democratic expression of diverse views, it is also a haven for trolls, bigots, and cranks. Fairfax New Zealand decided to rehabilitate the comment section of Stuff, the country’s largest news Web site.

In December 2016, we launched our Civil Society project for Stuff, which is also the largest domestic Web site in New Zealand, behind only the international giants of Google, Facebook, MSN, and YouTube. In a year when some prominent media outlets abandoned their comments sections, we decided it was worth fighting for ours. We aimed to restore civility to the conversation and make commenting more attractive for average readers.

The Civil Society project at Fairfax New Zealand's Stuff encourages reader engagement and debate in a respectful environment.
The Civil Society project at Fairfax New Zealand's Stuff encourages reader engagement and debate in a respectful environment.

All comments on Stuff are pre-moderated (New Zealand’s media law framework would make any other option unwise). Before this project, although our comments section would log roughly 5,000 comments on a busy day, it had also developed a poor reputation as home to abuse, vitriol, and more heat than light.

This dismayed us, because we’re proud to offer our audience a voice and a sense of community; our readers feel a sense of ownership of Stuff. But we feared that a slow erosion of our community values in the comments section was deterring average readers from engaging.

Stuff has maintained a free membership system rather than erecting a paywall. Comments are a key editorial driver of membership, as readers must be logged in to have their say.

We did not want to eliminate our comments section nor outsource it to another platform such as Facebook. We were committed to maintaining ownership of constructive, democratic debate on matters of public importance. We also value the connection that comments give us to our readers.

The Civil Society project required us to ask some searching questions about our own role. Were our rules for comments right? Were we enforcing them fairly and consistently? Were we devoting sufficient resources to moderating comments?

We answered those question by modernising and bolstering our terms and conditions, launching new training for all Stuff staff in our best practice moderation procedures and standards, and hiring specialist comment moderators to work alongside our existing production staff.

But we realised it would be pointless to update our rules for comments without alerting our audience. After seeking input from readers via our user-generated content system Stuff Nation, we designed an editorial series to herald our changes and ask our audience to work with us to lift the standard of discourse, with civility as the watchword.

We launched Civil Society with an ​editorial​ likening our community to a pub: “Were aiming for the atmosphere of a friendly neighbourhood pub — come on in for a chat, healthy debate, and a bit of banter, but dont disgrace yourself. And if things are getting messy, the bartender will call time.”

It was accompanied by one of my personal favourites in this project: a video from satirist “White Man Behind a Desk” on how to argue well. And at every opportunity, we promoted our revamped ​terms and conditions,​ and an ​FAQ​ offering insight into our moderation process.

The series also included:

  • Opinion pieces from ​a reader who loves the comments section​, and ​another who had tasted its dark side.
  • A quiz ​inviting readers to moderate comments.
  • A ​live chat​ between Stuff editors and readers.
  • Data analysis​ of a week of comments.

Despite a minority of readers that interpreted these changes as a clampdown on free speech, accusing us of political bias or outrageous censorship, taking a tougher line on comments hasn’t harmed reader engagement. Early indications show that we are achieving our goal of making the comments section more accessible, and we hope that average readers feel more at home there.

In February 2017, our comments had grown to 8,000 on a busy day — with the previous high of 5,000 now our average day. We set a monthly domestic unique audience record of 2.21 million. In a country of only 4.78 million people, that makes us a dominant player in digital media — which confers on us a responsibility to consider our impact on the timbre of public conversation.