I recently picked up a physical newspaper and read it cover to cover for the first time in about a year. Upon seeing an article I disagreed with, I instinctively scanned the page for the comments box. There wasn’t one of course, but my instinct shows how natural it has become to expect an instant right to reply to any form of media.

While blogs, YouTube videos and most other forms of ‘new media’ embraced discussion right from their inception, ‘old media’ has largely resisted the change, preferring to separate content from the wider discussion that can often enrich it with additional details or hold it to account with criticism.

In the UK, BBC News has largely avoided direct commenting. If you wanted to discuss a story you had hope that the editors had deemed it suitable for the separate Have Your Say section of the site – or just go away and talk about it somewhere off-site, ruining any chance of a centralised debate on the issue.

Screen shot 2011 03 19 at 13.28.52 220x88 BBC News tries adding reader comments to stories, but should it bother?Now, after having trialled it on a small number of stories in recent months, the site is set to roll out in-article commenting on a wider basis, but in a very ‘BBC’ way. The default view for the custom-built commenting solution is an ‘Editor’s Picks’ tab, that highlights reader comments that (in the words of the site’s social media editor Alex Gubbay) “showcase interesting additional insight and perspective”. Access to all (pre-moderated) comments is just a click away though, and users will soon be able to rate comments, helping to bring them to the attention of editors who can promote those they deem suitable across to the ‘Picks’ tab.

A cautious approach

Don’t expect to be able to comment on everything though. “Even at this point, we will still only enable it on a selection of content each day, determined by our editors and the news agenda,” writes Gubbay. You probably won’t have long to leave a comment either. This story, one of the testing grounds for the new system, has had comments closed just a couple of days after publication. These new commenting modules will replace the Have Your Say section, which is likely to be shuttered next month.

“It is a reflection of the changing online landscape and the advent of social media that we feel the time is now right to move on from Have Your Say,” write Gubbay. “This process is essentially about us online focusing more now on encouraging discussion around our content itself, rather than looking to host or manage a community.”

Coming from a blogging background, and as someone who tends to consume news almost entirely via the Web, part of me feels like shouting at the BBC that they’re taking far too soft an approach. Concocting this pre-moderated, selectively implemented ‘halfway house’ approach to commenting feels like an unhappy compromise for all concerned.

“Just add comments to every single post, and moderate them after publication to keep the discussion lively,” I feel like saying. User voting and editorial ‘picks’ could ensure that the ‘best’ comments rise to the top. Closing comments on stories, meanwhile, causes a frustrating user experience that ignores the ‘long tail’ of people reading an article days, months or years later.

Why it might better just to avoid comments altogether

The ‘softly softly’ approach the BBC is taking to interactivity is understandable, however. When you’re a source trusted by millions of people around the world to deliver reliable, accurate news, the danger of someone seeing something inaccurate posted in a comment and believing it “because they saw it on the BBC” is a real and potentially damaging one.

This is particularly relevant when you consider that it has an audience that ranges from web-savvy types like you or I right through to people who’ve never heard of Facebook, let alone posted any of their own content online. Having to pre-moderate comments to prevent this situation is a real bottleneck, as there simply wouldn’t be enough staff available to judge the relevance and accuracy of every single comment coming in if commenting was allowed on every single story.

What’s more, many of the comments on Gubbay’s post are critical of the move. “Previously,” writes one commenter, “the isolation of Have Your Say allowed the rest of us to avoid the tinfoil hatters, the Provisional Wing of the Daily Mail Readership, the BNPers and the Expats who queue up to say how the country’s gone to the dogs. So of course what you do is bring them into every story! Well done!”

“Have Your Say is not perfect but it at least allowed an open forum for debate where each contributor was equal. This new format may stifle debate and will no doubt skew views in favour of the extreme minorities. I also feel it will lead to yet another dumbing down on the BBC,” writes another.

As much as may seem like a natural evolution to make everything on the Web more social and interactive, that may not be the case. The audience at a site like BBC News is so broad that commenting could become such a huge job that it ends up being impossible to manage. Popular news stories could end up with thousands of comments that end up impossible to keep track of, devaluing the point of commenting in the first place.

Perhaps the BBC News website, and other long-established news providers with vast, broad audiences, are simply better avoiding this minefield altogether.