Wednesday, May 07, 2008

my editor made me do it

I was roped into covering a newspaper-organized panel yesterday, much to my colleagues' amusement (and relief). It was linked off Romanesko today, which was pleasant. I almost did not arrive on time, because I was waylaid in North Stonington chatting with Anna Coit in an impossibly quaint cafe I'd yet to enter before then since it closes by 2 p.m.

I bought a muffin and a made-to-order chicken salad sandwich, lead-footed it back to New London, parked by my building, and then rushed the few blocks to the office as I ate the potato chips piled next to my sandwich. As I entered the building, I lost my grip on the container. The sandwich flew all over the entryway floor -- chicken salad everywhere -- unsalvageable. While sitting through the panel, all I could think about was chicken salad.

I wrote the story fast, because my desire to take a yoga class trumped the fact that all the top editors were watching or participating in the panel and knew what had happened and how they viewed it. It came out OK, though the smidgen of snark (the ME called it "being flip." Ha) was edited away.

Anyhoo, here's the article (the link to which doesn't have my byline, even though it did earlier, because our ability to maintain a Web site is crap):

Editors, reporters, readers and media experts discussed the relatively new and challenging world of online reader comments at a forum at The Day on Tuesday.

Some of the participants were troubled by the vitriol that can characterize comments posted to articles on newspaper Web sites.

”The free flow of ideas has more often become a sewer,” said Christopher Clouet, the New London schools superintendent and a frequent target of irate anonymous comments on

Clouet said he steers clear of answering inaccurate comments, wary of entering a virtual shouting match or, as he called it,“a food fight.” But he said he would“welcome the opportunity to have the space to say, 'Actually, it's the board of ed who votes on these issues, not me.'”

Other panel participants included four Day staff members, New England News Forum executive director Bill Densmore, lawyer Robert Bertsche, University of Connecticut journalism professor Marcel Dufresne, two frequent commenters and Jim Konrad, executive editor of The Norwich Bulletin.

There were multiple opinions about what newspaper Web sites like can or should do to maintain some standard of civility, and whether anonymous posts should be allowed.

Some panelists said newspapers need to continue to serve as gatekeepers and should moderate the discourse.

Densmore, however, described modern journalists not as gatekeepers but as“information valets,” providing a service, not a product.

Panelists floated many suggestions about how, or whether, to regulate online comment postings. The Norwich Bulletin recently closed its site to comments due to high levels of profanity and irrelevant ranting.

”Finally, folks found the wedding and engagement announcements and decided they would comment on the bride,” said Konrad, The Bulletin editor. He added that comments can harm the newspaper's reputation if readers“can't tell where the story ends and the comments begin.”

The Bulletin will relaunch user comments once it installs a program requiring user registration and will have staff approve posts.

Beyond The Bulletin's chosen course, other suggestions for moderating online comments included requiring users to confirm their identities with a credit card; grouping registered and anonymous posters separately; blocking users who submit too much irrelevant ranting; disabling the comment function on certain stories; and depending on users to flag other users' inappropriate comments.

But even though panelists agreed that online commenting can degenerate, they differed on whether that meant censoring was necessary.

”Somebody who writes in that fashion is probably not worth listening to, and I just go on to the next one,” local blogger John Wirzbicki said in defending the practice of allowing the posting of comments to stories.

But some readers may be thinner-skinned than Wirzbicki, who authors the liberal blog CT Blue.

”One person's offensive word is just a synonym for 'lousy' for someone else,” said Sally Stapleton, an assistant managing editor at The Day.

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