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Faced with declining circulation, many US newspapers are trying to engage readers by allowing them to respond to news stories online. But the anonymity of the Internet lets readers post obscenities and racist hate speech that would never be allowed in the printed paper.
Consider one reader comment this month on the Web site of Nashville's daily newspaper, The Tennessean: Some ethnic groups were told to "go back where you came from" while one was singled out for comparison with insects.
Such rants have long been a part of Internet chat rooms and unmoderated discussion boards. As newspapers try to be more competitive with interactive media online, editors are struggling to find a balance between unfettered reader participation and longtime standards of decency, fairness and accountability.
Sree Sreenivasan, director of the New Media program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said the benefits of reader participation outweigh the negatives.
"Lots of people want to take action when they read a story," he said. "In the old days if you were upset about something, you could tell one person at the water cooler. Now you can forward it to 100 friends and say, 'We need to do something.'"
But there have been some spectacular failures. In 2005, the Los Angeles Times had to remove an interactive online editorial about the war in Iraq after only three days because some users flooded the site with foul language and pornographic photos.
Newspapers can monitor reader comments using automatic filters and staff, Sreenivasan said. But that costs money at a time when newspapers are cutting newsroom jobs.
How to monitor reader comments is "an ongoing question," said Randy Bennett, vice president of audience and new business development for the Newspaper Association of America.
"It's a game of attracting a broad audience, and building loyalty with that audience, to be able to sell that to advertisers," he said. Papers now get about 5 percent to 7 percent of their revenues from Web sites, and that percentage is expected to grow.
Some editors feel that vigorous monitoring will make readers go elsewhere.
Gannett Co.'s USA Today began allowing comments on all stories in March and has seen more than 140,000 comments posted since then.
"We walk a tightrope of creating the right type of environment that reflects well on the brand while at the same time not trying to be overly controlling in how we moderate," said Kinsey Wilson, the paper's executive editor.
The Tennessean also allows readers to post directly to its Web site. Employees monitor the comments "every hour or so" and take them down "if we know they are false or if they are obscene or vile," said Mark Silverman, editor and vice president of content and audience development.
But once a comment appears on the Web, even if it's pulled, it does not necessarily disappear. Readers can save a copy, and search engines can index it.
Jim Boyd, one of the few readers who identifies himself in his online comments for The Tennessean, loves the rowdy, no-holds-barred exchange of ideas on the Web site, calling it a "new Renaissance."
Of the hateful and vulgar remarks that sometimes appear online, he said, "I really think that's part and parcel of the freedom. If somebody's going to make a fool of themselves, just let them go."
Ted Vaden, ombudsman for The News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., wrote an editorial earlier this month questioning whether anonymous Web posts hurt the credibility of the paper. He supports requiring users to attach their names to comments, just as they are required to do for letters to the editor.
"We're trying to conform to the blogosphere culture, which is one of freewheeling debate and resistance to censorship," he said.
But that format "seems to provide an opportunity for racists and various other kinds of unpleasant comment," he said. "It challenges our standards because information can end up on our online sites we would not allow in print."
One of the few newspapers that does monitor everything readers post is The New York Times.
After the recent Virginia Tech massacre, five editors were working at once to vet all the comments from readers, said Vivian Schiller, vice president and general manager of NYTimes.com. The effort is worthwhile to make sure the quality of the newspaper is carried through to its Web site, she said.
"I don't understand people who wash their hands and say, 'We're just going to capitulate to irrelevant information on our Web site,'" she said.
Eve Batey, the editor of blogging and interactive for the San Francisco Chronicle, is an advocate for papers taking more control of reader comment on their sites. Her background is in blogging, not newspapers.
Newspapers are fairly new to interactive Web sites and have copied the models of other sites without thinking it through, Batey said. Some readers who see offensive comments on the Chronicle's Web site assume the newspaper endorses those points of view, she said.
"Newspapers can have a high level of discourse or a lot of traffic," she said. "They're going to have to make that Sophie's choice."
But editors who are confused about how to facilitate a discussion among their readers can take comfort in the fact that even the giant Internet sites are wrestling with the same problems.
In December, readers of news stories on Yahoo noticed something missing. The comments section had been pulled and replaced with a message that complained a small number of vocal users were dominating the discussions. It promised the message boards would return in a format that "fosters a better discussion for all of our readers."
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