From Public Spaces to Public Sphere: Rethinking systems for reader comments on online news sites

This study examines how journalists and technologists are re-imagining the construction of networked, dynamic spaces for online news discussion through a qualitative study of 126 idea submissions to a popular news innovation contest. We consider these submissions in the light of the concept of the public sphere, with a specific focus on how these submissions might address shortcomings identified in the literature about the ability of the internet, but of news commenting forums in particular, to serve as an extension of the public sphere. Four main themes emerged in the submissions: a need to (1) better organize content, (2) moderate content more effectively, (3) unite disjointed discourse, and (4) increase participation while promoting diversity. We find in these proposed solutions the possibility for relatively low-cost, easy-to-build systems that could moderate comments more efficiently while also facilitating more civil, cohesive, and diverse discourse; however, we also find the lingering danger of designing new systems that could perpetuate old problems such as fragmentation, filter bubbles, and homogenization. Ultimately, it remains to be seen how technological innovations might help or hinder the ability of the internet, and of news commenting spaces in particular, to serve as an extension of the public sphere. More broadly, by studying how these innovation-contest submissions sought to transform the discursive systems of news websites, we can begin to grasp how the evolution of digital journalism, technologically, might facilitate a broader rethinking about how news institutions could better serve the ideals of deliberation in a changing media environment.