How This Atlantic Editor Plans to Make Trolls Irrelevant

"Most of all, I want to help The Atlantic become the most notable place for readers to become contributors."

Chris-BodennerA week after TheAtlantic.com unveiled its redesign, senior editor Chris Bodenner put up his first post since rejoining the organization in April to work on reader engagement. Featuring reactions to the redesign sent to hello@theatlantic.com, the email address created as an outlet for reader opinions, Bodenner laid it out there–a long chain of complaints and compliments interspersed with Bodenner’s own annotations.

It was the overture to an ongoing experiment, an attempt to reward those who comment thoughtfully, while muting the impact of trolls who gleefully spew their negativity across the comment sections of almost every news site on the Web.

Bodenner has penned three more reader-reaction posts since then, drawing on comments across The Atlantic’s social media platforms and hello@ emails in response to articles on childless-by-choice women, female circumcision and tensions in Baltimore. For Bodenner, the use of email to engage with readers is an idea that recalls his previous life at The Dish, whose audience was big on email correspondence.

Plans for hello@ extend past posting snippets of the most eloquent or insightful reader transmissions out there. “Over time I want to even commission pieces out of the readership,” Bodenner tells FishbowlDC.  It is a goal that has precedent at The Atlantic. Senior editor Yoni Appelbaum was once a regular on The Horde, the commenting community created out of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ readership, before Applebaum’s thoughtful responses landing him a paid gig. And this is the path that led Bodenner himself to The Atlantic. “I started as a daily reader of The Dish who frequently emailed stuff to Andrew [Sullivan], so eventually he created a full-time position for me, when The Dish was at The Atlantic.”

We asked Bodenner about how The Atlantic is responding to comments on the redesign and his future plans for reader engagement.

FBDC: How did the amount and scope of emails you received about the redesign compare with your expectations?

Bodenner: Frequent readers of any publication tend to be wary of big change, as I saw when The Dish went from The Atlantic to The Daily Beast to an independent site. And readers who get upset over something are far more likely to sound off, so I wasn’t surprised by all of the critical emails and comments we received. If you’re a reader who checks our homepage daily, I totally understand how the changes could be disorienting at first. So I hope my explanatory post and James Fallows’ own post were helpful. And I tried to respond to as many of the hundreds of emails as I could, including all the positive ones we got.

FBDC: Will there be any changes to the site based on responses to the redesign?

Bodenner: Yes, there will be adjustments to the site as we continue to monitor what’s working and where there’s still room for improvement. Some are further changes we’ve had in mind for a while. Some will be changes that readers have helped us think through. But all the changes are improvements within the framework of the new design, which we created to be a flexible and adaptable. We began A/B testing (the most direct way to see what readers prefer and what they don’t) immediately after the new site debuted. We made some tweaks accordingly and will continue to do so.

FBDC: Will you make your reader-reaction posts a regular feature?

Bodenner: Right now, it’s essentially a pilot project, since we’re planning to evolve the use of edited commentary in all kinds of ways. That evolution will include product development, which we’ve already started working on. In the meantime, the challenge of finding great comments across several platforms and getting writers to engage that feedback is a great learning process.

FBDC: How are you choosing which articles to highlight?

Bodenner: It’s a combination of ones I personally find interesting and ones that are attracting substantive reader feedback on Disqus, Facebook, Twitter and email. Also, because the Dish readership engaged countless topics over the years, I developed a good sense as to which kinds of stories spark the best debates and discussions. I’m working on creating a more efficient system where Atlantic writers can flag especially good comments and emails and funnel them to me, since it’s impossible for one person to track the tens of thousands of comments on the 20 to 25 pieces we post each day.

FBDC: What have you learned so far sifting through comments? What does looking at the responses in aggregate tell you about The Atlantic’s audience?

Bodenner: Before this new job, I rarely read comment sections. The Dish never had one because our readership was incredibly engaged via email–300 to 500 a day, which, when edited, provided about a third of the blog’s content. Traditional comments sections definitely pose challenges because of the sheer volume and nature of the chatter. So it’s been a big adjustment, but Atlantic readers are a smart and thoughtful crowd in general–I’m finding hidden gems in all those thousands of comments.

We’re also trying to find ways to incentivize readers to elevate the discourse, first by creating a new email address, hello@theatlantic.com, that will mainline commentary to me and thus make it more likely that I’ll publish those readers. I prefer such carrots over the typical stick approach of deleting comments and banning ‘trolls,’ which is time-consuming and basically futile.

FBDC: Have you shared what you’ve learned so far with other writers and staff members? What was their reaction?

Bodenner: Their reaction to more reader involvement has been really positive so far. I could see how some writers might chafe at reader criticism posted for all to see, but everyone whose pieces I’ve posted on–Sophie Gilbert, Olga Khazan, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Megan Garber and Conor Friedersdorf–has welcomed the feedback from readers, and most of them have responded in kind. It’s not dissent that writers resent; it’s the personal attacks. Sophie, for one, was really surprised I was able to find so much thoughtful debate over her piece on women choosing to go childless, since that topic is pretty polarizing.

FBDC: The sense I get is that you’re a mix of debate moderator and public editor, minus the conferring of judgment. How do you see your role?

Bodenner: Yeah, I’m an impartial moderator for the most part, but I will voice my own views when I see fit, especially on subjects I acquire some authority on, namely through reporting, which I want to mix into reader posts more and more. And, yes, I’m also a public editor of sorts, but more as a conduit for reader dissent, rather than a finger-waving ombudsman. I also like the analogy of a mashup DJ. I’m not just compiling comments; I’m trying to enhance them as much as I can with research, reporting, fact-checking, responses from Atlantic writers, photos, videos, tweets, archival content and fun random shit from the Internet.

Most of all, I want to help The Atlantic become the most notable place for readers to become contributors. I feel a publication should respect and value its readers enough to actually edit their writing, just like any other contributor. It’s such an open, meritocratic culture here, and I want to deepen that culture as much as I can with this new role.