In April, Postmedia cut the comments sections of many of its newly acquired Ontario papers.

[[{“fid”:”4396″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”309″,”width”:”497″,”style”:”width: 400px; height: 249px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]By Chantal Braganza, Associate Editor

Shortly after Postmedia closed a deal with Quebecor for its Sun Media English properties in April, it did a test run of shutting down the comments section for a single paper: The Belleville Intelligencer. “It was a decision made not lightly and one that will be revisited in the future,” an Apr. 17 notice on the site read.

“We were looking for what reader feedback we received in terms of positive or negative responses,” Lou Clancy, senior vice-president of content at Postmedia, told J-Source.

That response would determine if the change extended to the majority of its newly acquired Ontario dailies—eventually, it did. On Apr. 27, papers such as the Kingston Whig-Standard, Sudbury Star and a trio of Niagara region papers posted notices that commenting would be shut off for the time being. (The Ottawa Sun, Toronto Sun and London Free Press, however, would continue to keep them.) These notes encouraged readers to comment on coverage via their Facebook pages in the meantime.

Clancy said the decision to cut comment sections on the newly acquired papers was primarily motivated by the number of vitriolic statements they invited and the resources each newsroom put into moderating them. In some cases, he said, this added up to a day and a half per week for community papers with small newsrooms.

“The real issue was that the trolls were dominating the conversation—and the newsrooms’ time. Because of the ability to comment anonymously, they were saying things that really were quite foul, things that people had to take down immediately,” he said. 

The debate over whether online comments sections still hold value for news organizations has continued for some time. Over the past two years, Reuters, Popular Science, The Chicago Sun-Times and The Las Vegas Review-Journal shut down their comments sections—with the latter two eventually bringing them back. Earlier this year, DailyXtra closed commenting for its three coverage cities—Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa—shortly after its relaunch. 

“We eliminated something that was broken,” Pink Triangle Press editor and publisher Brandon Matheson told J-Source at the time. “The pool of people participating had also really shrunk; there was a lot more vitriol, nastiness and comments that were straying or had nothing to do with the stories themselves.” 

Fortune senior writer Mathew Ingram has written extensively about comments sections, both as a former writer for technology news site Gigaom and a communities editor at the Globe and Mail, where he also headed comment moderation.

“There’s no question that comments sections are often filled with trolls and spam and violent misogynist commentary. I wouldn’t argue with that,” he said. “The question is what you do about it. Do you turn it off or try to spend time and resources making sure those things don’t exist?”

There are good reasons to do so, Ingram said. “The relationship that media companies have with their readers, which comes through things like comments, is one of the most valuable things you have.”

Unlike social media platforms where discussion about stories is fragmented, Ingram said, comment sections allow for a single space to find responses. “If it’s distributed on every platform, it becomes a task for the reader to find discussion about that article somewhere.”

“Another aspect that gets missed is that comments perform a function in terms of checking the credibility or veracity of a piece. They can act as a check on journalists doing that writing. It’s far harder for that to function the way it should in social media.”

When Siri Agrell was working as a reporter for the Globe in 2008, she wrote a feature about Canadian Forces soldiers injured in Afghanistan who still wanted to serve. “The comments section was horrifying—people calling these guys baby killers and worse.”

“I remember thinking, ‘How are we going to convince people to talk to us and share personal stories if we don’t protect them?’ As a reporter you have a responsibility to your sources that’s more than protecting their names [in instances of anonymity],” she said.

“In a lot of ways, where media has fallen down is through that—asking people to participate in media and then exposing them to horrible abuse that wouldn’t happen any other way.”

As a communications strategist and vice-president of Pilot PMR, Agrell’s experience working with people quoted in news stories these days is more about caution than questions. “I talk about this with my clients. Especially female clients, LGBT clients or clients of colour: be aware that you might experience this, don’t take it personally—but that you also have some recourse.”

One thing she suggests to clients speaking on troll-fodder topics: agree to speak to a reporter if the comments are turned off for a story. “I wouldn’t expect it with every case,” she said. But she did do this herself recently, after sparking an online discussion about infertility while tweeting about her own experiences at an in-vitro fertilization clinic last month. Shortly after, the National Post reached out to write about it.

“I wanted to share this with their readers, but I know that talking about pregnancy issues on the Post would’ve incited a reaction I’m not willing to endure,” she said. The reporter, Sarah Boesveld, didn’t say yes to the terms right away, but discussed it with her editor, at which point they went ahead with Agrell’s request. The resulting feature garnered over a dozen responses by email that Boesveld later did a follow-up on.

Of Postmedia’s recent decision, Ingram said the fact that most of the papers affected are local community titles is significant. “I think the smaller and more focused you are in a specific community, the more important it is for you to have avenues to have people contribute and become part of your reader community,” he said.

This may be the case again for those titles, as Postmedia may bring back story commenting via Facebook sign-in, as is the case with a few of its titles such as the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal. (The National Post’s comments, however, are hosted via Disqus.) “We will return to commenting at some papers once we’re able to bring in that technology,” Clancy said, though there’s no timeline for when that might happen.

“I respect Mathew a lot and I accept his opinion,” said Clancy. “When we get sign-in commenting again, I’m sure that will be true.”

Illustration image by Ian Holt, via Flickr.