These are two questions posed by newspaper editors at a workshop in Boston this past weekend.
Suppose we get a really hot letter to the editor - defamatory, abusive, too hot to handle in print - can we post it to the comment part of our website? (The question's a little creepy, I have to say.)
And, another, if we require all letters published in print to be signed, how come we don't require signatures with comments on the website? (I'll have to work a little to answer that one.)
We were at the New England Press Association's annual convention, and the topic was "Your Newspaper Online: The Era of Blogs, Podcasts, and Other Stuff on the Web." The leaders of the workshop were lawyers from the media and intellectual property group at Prince, Lobel, Glovsky and Tye in Boston. As Rob Bertsche, the thoroughly experienced Prince, Lobel partner, put it, "We're here to empower you to do the journalism you want to do."
Our experience with comments posted on mvtimes.com over the past two weeks, in reaction to news stories about the deadly Jan. 29 car crash, became a sort of case study for the workshop, or at least, it served as an immediate and aggravated example of newspaper life in this scrambling moment of print-web transition. In other workshops over the weekend, the questions tended to be about the splashy new technology things that are possible on the web and how we should get over our crotchety newsprint obsession and embrace the web. But at "Your Newspaper Online," naturally enough, the questions tended to be about what's allowed and what's not.
For instance, if The Times defames someone in a news story published in print or online, of if we were to publish a defamatory letter, the newspaper might face a suit for libel. If someone posts a libel to the Comment feature, Congress and the courts have decided that the poster may be liable for his libel, but the newspaper is not. Hence, question number one, proposing a hedge against legal action while the newspaper enjoys the benefits of attention that might be attracted by a really hot letter. (There was wide agreement at the workshop that the suggested fake-out was out of bounds.)
Newspaper editors have always sniffed proudly that, call it what you may, each published newspaper was really just one installment in a daily or weekly conversation with its readers. Three decades ago, Scotty Reston frequently described his Vineyard Gazette as a weekly postcard to friends who wanted to be here, but couldn't. He has been forgiven for having overlooked the thousands of Vineyard souls who would have liked to be somewhere else in February, but couldn't, so they didn't get the postcard. But anyhow, it was a very limited conversation that newspapers had with their readers then. The newspaper wrote all about you. A few of you wrote back. The newspaper picked one or two of your letters to publish, and then, Talk to you again next week.
So, the Comment feature we've added to mvtimes.com is an attempt to enlarge the conversation by making it more of a flowing, continuous two-way street. We talk, you listen. You talk, we listen. Last week, there were heartwarming, thoughtful, and critical comments, which are what we want. But, we hated some of what we saw. It was often rude, disparaging, name-calling, nasty, and cruel, wickedly so. One or two of the participants nearly hijacked the conversation, so that it became briefly about him (or her, we don't know). So, even though the law says we don't have to, that we can let you say just exactly what you feel like saying, we've set down some rules about how you can say it. You'll find the new rules on the website this week, plus a requirement that you read and agree to them. And, we've added a new feature that lets you report to us posts that you don't think meet the standard. You are solely and wholly responsible for your comments, and we want you to have your say, but after all, it's our website, and it's a newspaper for a general and genial readership, and we don't want to wince when we read what you've written. This doesn't mean that we have any interest in allowing one point of view but blocking another. All points of view are, if not welcomed, then at least allowed. The readers who are passionate about their First Amendment rights but indifferent to yours will be unhappy, and so be it.
We don't like anonymity. It would be better if every poster, like every letter writer whose words appear among the Letters to the Editor, in print and online, included his or her name. If you've something worth saying, stand behind it. But, the rules are different for the words that The Times publishes and the words that you post. We put our names on what we publish and ask those who would have us publish their letters to do the same. Posters to the Comment feature may post anonymously or pseudonymously, but they must live with the diminished authority of what they write. When you put your name to what you write, it matters a great deal. When you don't, it matters less.
So, after all, the digital age contributes an interactive feature that, undeniably, adds to the conversation. But, as witness some of the posts of the past two weeks, it may also degrade the conversation at times. We'll see. And, of course, you'll tell us.