Letters From The Editor: Wild West or the very model of civility?

I once had an editor who said that we're in the business of answering readers' questions, not asking them.

And while I generally heed that advice, I've spent some of this young year asking readers what they want from us. Reader input has led me to beef up education coverage and make other changes. I believe in talking with, not at, readers.

So let's continue the conversation. I want to know how you feel about another topic: online comments.

We are among the few mainstream newspapers in this market to screen online comments before publication. This approach allows us to block racism, foul language, sexual content and otherwise inappropriate material.

But such screening slows the debate we want readers to have in the space beneath our stories. We are in the business of exchanging ideas, and it never feels good to suppress them.

Traditional newspaper readers, however, view editors as filters — those men and women who separate the wheat from the chaff. They want work that has been edited, screened and otherwise readied for publication. With online opinions so freely available, and the range in quality so vast, I see the argument for selectivity.

But many online readers expect instant gratification. They are not always looking for carefully crafted letters to the editor or fact checking. They want to see their thoughts appear on the screen soon after they type them. They want to be part of the conversation before it gives way to another topic.

They view their newspaper websites as town halls.

Because our editors must log in, review and then publish comments, the conversations started by our stories often stall. Responses are often separated by hours.

We have good intentions. In short, we prevent instant publication of thoughtful, insightful and reasoned comments because we're trying to prevent the nut jobs, racists and mean-spirited words from getting through. Maybe that's the tail wagging the dog.

So what to do about it?

I've looked at the rest of the herd. The Los Angeles Times (our parent company), the Orange County Register and OC Weekly are among the papers in this market that allow unscreened comments.

I don't mind going our own way if we're doing the right thing. I can always make a high-road argument.

But in honesty I am unsure how true that is anymore. Maybe there's more value in those tennis-like conversational volleys you see online.

In hopes of getting an idea about how readers felt, I recently posed a question on our website: Do you think the Daily Pilot should continue to screen comments for potentially offensive material before publication or allow readers to post their comments immediately?

Those who answered this non-scientific poll implored us to leave the screening in place. Some 67% of respondents said to screen while 33% said to "let it fly."

This tells me that our readers are turned off by the comments they sometimes read online and appreciate our efforts to keep online debates clean.

But in truth, these same readers, who tend to be pretty sophisticated, can tell the difference between sophomoric, racist and downright crazy attacks and legitimate, intelligent and engaging discourse.

And there are safeguards. Our online system has tools that allow readers to flag offensive material. This sends a signal to our editors to remove the problematic comments.

Either way, I am leaning toward giving the unfiltered comments a try, perhaps for two weeks or 30 days, just to see what happens.

What do you think? You can weigh in here or vote in our online poll.

Then I'll go back to the business of answering questions, not asking them.

Editor JOHN CANALIS can be reached at john.canalis@latimes.com or (714) 966-4607.

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