In barely a month and a half, EL PAÍS will complete the first three years of the strategic change that led to the subscription payment model. This new stage has brought enormous changes for readers, who not only have premium access to a newspaper in different formats to read, watch or listen to, but also a series of exclusive activities. And, among them, a space to make your voice heard: since May 2020, only subscribers can comment on the news. The objective of this measure was to clean up the forums to raise the quality of the conversation: “Build a critical and constructive community, free of toxicity”, as defined by the information that explained the paradigm shift.

One of Pepa Bueno’s first reflections, when she was appointed director of EL PAÍS the following year, was precisely the one that established a “more horizontal, direct and purposeful” relationship with readers.

Let’s put the ear. “The content of the forums seems to have no reconciliation with the tremendous lack of respect always from the same subscribers, hidden in cowardly aliases,” Antonio Pulido wrote earlier this month. Mercedes Sánchez also often addresses this defender to warn of the drift of the discussions: “Her forums of hers have become a shameful cage of shackles. I suppose that is why the participants are reduced every day or disappear”.

Or the last straw described by Javier Angosto: “I still remember the indignation that caused me when someone called Pablo Milanés a ‘son of a bitch’ a few hours after his death, and that such an insult passed the control of the moderator” (Wrote a user was “h of p” and although automatic moderation did not catch it right away, the comment was later deleted).

Alerted by these and other subscribers, this defender has navigated the newspaper’s forums for the last three weeks to try to get a broad view of what is happening there. What one finds is not the apocalypse, but it is correct to define it as a cage of crickets.

It is common for the conversation to go to the hills of Úbeda ―for example, in an information published this Tuesday about a study about coffee, there was talk of Tito Berni, one of the two main leaders, according to police reports, in the Mediator case―, there are numerous users with a pseudonym, despite the fact that this violates the rules of participation, comments in capital letters (also prohibited) and scuffles between subscribers. In addition, and they are the majority, there are users who write with respect and education. But many of the contributions in these forums are irrelevant to the topic being discussed.

How does the control of these spaces work? EL PAÍS has a moderation system in two phases. The first is through Perspective, an artificial intelligence tool that purifies the conversation through predefined toxic keywords, which was developed in Spanish by the newspaper together with Google. The next phase is manual, through the company Interactora, which works with various Spanish media. But that is also limited by the number of news that can be reached, since only in Spain the newspaper publishes around 200 pieces a day. As in everything, with more investment, it would be possible to improve the quality.

In addition, Álvaro Romero, responsible for the newspaper’s social networks, explains that other measures are taken, such as temporarily suspending certain readers who break the rules or writing to them to show them that their comments are not reasonable. He also clarifies that since May 2020 no subscriber has been excluded from the forums. Until then, there was a black list with readers who systematically failed to comply.

Despite all these filters, reader complaints show that the goal of having a constructive community free of toxicity is not fully achieved. Does that affect participation? In May 2020, with the closure to only subscribers, an average of 10,000 comments per day went from 1,000, according to the Looker tool, with which the newspaper observes the behavior of subscribers. So far this year, the average is 1,500 a day. But above all, the number of subscribers who make use of their commenting privilege is negligible.

The continuous technical failures that many readers complain about also play a role. The newspaper already has the replacement of the comments tool underway and with it the problems should be solved.


This advocate believes that the time has come to rethink the forums so that more readers feel attracted to participate. Here are some recommendations:

1. The newspaper cannot compete with other platforms where it is easier, and free, to give an opinion. But it could introduce more elements that reward and give visibility to the subscriber who provides constructive and interesting comments. Treatment is proactive in the face of toxicity, but quality is not rewarded. “Users with a history of comments based on respect and the absence of disqualifications will be graphically highlighted and will have publication priority,” the participation rules state. It is enough to be polite for it to apply, but there is no similar formula for value comments.

Just as Opinion is responsible for filtering relevant testimonials from letters to the editor, it could monitor subscriber engagement to highlight headline comments and even energize discussion.

2. The moderation that is done in EL PAÍS is after the publication of the comments. In it New York Times, whose comments section It is considered one of the best in the international press, a team of moderators is in charge of supervising the contributions and only publishes those that meet editorial standards. The same happens in the Washington Post, It also has a system to highlight comments that it considers relevant.

They are formulas that have already proven successful and that inspire you.

3. The rules of conversation must not only be clear, but they must be enforced. That EL PAÍS prohibits behaviors and then tolerates them misleads those who participate a lot.

4. Enter a deadline for the discussion. It is not viable for the control of toxicity that the forums remain open to infinity.

5. Find formulas to reward subscribers who provide more value with their comments.

EL PAÍS has put a lot of effort into improving its forums, but quality is not only avoiding toxicity, but promoting the value of the conversation. And that forces you to evolve.

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Deborah Acker

I write epic fantasy; self-published via KDP. Devoted dog mom to my 10 yr old GSD, Shadow! DM not a priority; slow response at best #amwriting #author.

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