Paper Cuts Off Website Forum
Bombarded by vicious online postings concerning race and immigration, a Ventura County newspaper has pulled the plug on a virtual bulletin board that invited readers to comment on stories that appeared on the paper’s website.
Thousands of Ventura County Star readers have posted messages since January, when the newspaper launched the feature as a way to connect with the community and let residents have a say, said John Moore, assistant managing editor for new media and technology.
Comments were posted live and largely un-moderated. But too often, Moore said, topic threads spun out of control, with readers peppering posts with profanity and engaging in personal attacks. Even the most routine story would degenerate into a string of invectives, often centering on ethnicity and immigration status.
The newspaper disabled the online comments section Wednesday, but Moore said he hoped to resurrect the feature, with tighter controls, perhaps as early as next week.
“All of us were sad we had to shut it down at all,” said Moore, noting an escalation in the online nastiness in recent weeks. “We didn’t have the staff to spend 24 hours a day watching this.”
Newspapers across the country are wrestling with similar issues amid shifting expectations about how information is delivered and changing attitudes about the public’s role as both news consumer and purveyor, media analysts say.
They say news organizations are increasingly looking for ways to connect with readers and get them to invest in the news of the day, either in print or online.
To that end, news outlets update websites with breaking stories, and some supply readers with reporters’ e-mail addresses and phone numbers. Only a handful of newspapers go as far as placing links at the bottom of stories that invite public comment, analysts say.
“I think that generally it’s fair to say that journalism and the way that people gain information is becoming less of an organized lecture through the media and more of an open dialogue in which citizens are active participants,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington D.C.-based Project for Excellence in Journalism
“I think that’s utterly in keeping with the larger purpose of journalism, which is to inspire debate,” Rosenstiel added. “But even people on the cutting edge of this new culture are struggling with how far they can extend that kind of open mike.”
At newsrooms nationwide, such public participation has met with mixed results.
The Orange County Register invites readers to join a daily discussion about the story of the day or sound off on topics ranging from toll roads to the war in Iraq and has had few problems. However, the San Francisco Chronicle largely gave up on reader message boards after using them extensively, starting in about 1996. The Chronicle now limits the topics it opens to reader discussion.
“It was almost impossible to control and it took more staff time than we could devote to it,” said Vlae Kershner, news director for the Chronicle’s website. “We particularly had problems with fans of sports teams. A group of 49ers fans and Raiders fans once tried to arrange a fistfight after a game.... That was one of the low points.”
The Rocky Mountain News, the Ventura County Star’s sister paper in Denver, began hosting online forums about six years ago, allowing readers to comment on news stories and other topics.
Problems arose when the paper hosted a forum about the Columbine shooting, which ran for about a year after the 1999 incident. Initially, the forum was a way for readers to offer condolences to victims’ families, but grew into a larger discussion that turned ugly as the shooting probe continued.
“It wasn’t all the time on topic,” said Mike Noe, the paper’s interactive editor. “People started saying things that were offensive, and we had to pull it.”
The decision didn’t come easily, Noe said.
“I think it’s one of the important things that a newspaper and a newspaper website does,” he said. “Newspapers have historically [had] a forum in their editorial pages to accept letters to the editors, and a website forum is just the next generation of that.”
Since launching its website in 1995, the Los Angeles Times has allowed readers to comment on topics through a variety of message boards. A significant problem surfaced last June during the NBA championship round between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Detroit Pistons, said Richard Core, editor of Latimes.com.
Readers were asked to comment on how they thought the series was going, but the conversation devolved by the second day.
“It started out with people tossing in their comments about who is playing well and who isn’t, about how Shaq was performing and how Kobe was performing,” Core said. “But then people just descended upon it and turned it into this free-for-all. I don’t know that any of the comments were racist, but they were off-color and disruptive and so we had to shut it down.”
The Ventura County Star had few mechanisms in place to keep the electronic conversation civil. At first, it wasn’t necessary.
The online feature was launched without any publicity, leaving readers to discover the format on their own. Only weeks after inviting comments, a breaking story about an escaped tiger had registered 200 comments by noon and after two days, more than 750 people had chimed in.
But as time went on, editor Moore said staff members spent more time monitoring the comments section and deleting inappropriate posts.
With comments posted on dozens of stories, he said the policing activity ended up eating up much of the day.
Now the staff is scrambling to test software that will allow the Star to bring the comments back under tighter controls, including an ability to ban those who don’t obey the rules.
“Readers want to have their say, and I think it would be foolish for us not to figure out a way to make things work,” Moore said.
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