You have your say online with vigor|Reader comments drive Register Web site hits to new high -- and generate a news story or two

SANDUSKY Here at the Sandusky Register, we love our readers. But we don't always love
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

Here at the Sandusky Register, we love our readers.

But we don't always love the comments posted to our Web site.

As at other newspapers, the chore of weeding out offensive or defamatory comments has created extra work for the paper's editors. But the ability to post comments has helped drive record levels of traffic to the site and create a dialogue with the paper's readers.

"We're hoping readers learn how to create a constructive dialogue in the story comments and forums online," said Matt Westerhold, managing editor of the Register. "We've seen some of that, but unfortunately there are too many ugly postings with some people making personal attacks on others without regard to facts."

Westerhold likened the mean-spirited nature in some postings to "one big happy family, with some angry members."

"Hopefully the readers will work through this animosity and create a dialogue that will better serve the community," he said.

The latest revamp of the Sandusky Register's Web site, sanduskyregister.com, opened the door for readers to post comments in December.

Patrick O'Brien, the Register's Web director and systems administrator, said the comments sections have driven traffic to the Web site.

The Register's family of Web sites, which includes funcoast.com, recorded 1.3 million page views in May, up 20 percent from April and 58 percent from a year ago, O'Brien said.

Westerhold said the addition of slideshows, video and audio clips of breaking news and feature stories also led to a spike in traffic for the online products.

The Internet, O'Brien said, has helped move newspapers away from an "ivory tower" approach to covering the news, where editors worked with a "we'll tell you what we think is important" approach. The long-term goal is to foster high levels of interaction among readers, reporters and editors.

Reader comments on sanduskyregister.com take two forms, O'Brien said -- comments appended to news stories, and opinions voiced in a separate Sandusky Register Forums area.

"We distinguish them as two different things," he said.

The Register maintains a running tally on stories that have drawn the most comments during the preceding seven days. Late last week, the most-discussed story was "Trustees draw fire in Perkins," followed by "Ex-cop out of prison" and the Routh Packing labor troubles.

Westerhold said reader interaction was very evident in the newspaper's coverage of the contract talks between the labor union and management team at Routh Packing.

"We learned through the online forums that negotiations for a new contract were going sour," Westerhold said. "It was really a form of citizen journalism that sparked the Register's coverage."

The newsroom has also followed numerous other stories suggested by readers who've made story comments online, he said.

"It's a new world in journalism, and I can foresee a lot more of our daily coverage in the newspaper being driven by thoughtful readers who have information they want to share," Westerhold said.

The forums began in February. Forum visitors are asked to register with a screen name and to list a valid e-mail address, which is validated before posts are allowed.

"We don't seek to find out anyone's true identity unless we need it for story verification or something," O'Brien said.

About 175 people have registered for the forums.

The Register conducted an unscientific poll on the story comments options from May 29 to June 5 online, asking readers whether the Register should require registration for the story comments, just as it does for the forums.

A 58 percent majority, 626 people, answered "No. It should just stay the way it is." Another 23 percent said yes and said people should be required to use their real names, while 19 percent supported registration but said people should be allowed to use screen names.

There are no plans currently to make any changes to how readers can comment online.

All of the reader comments are unmoderated. They are posted by the readers themselves, and no one checks them before they post.

Some wind up being deleted, however.

Robust expressions of opinion are fine, including criticism of the Register, O'Brien said.

"We leave most about the comments about the Register up there, good, bad or indifferent," he said.

But obscene comments or unverified allegations of illegality or immorality are removed when they are found by editors. These also are removed when readers or subjects of offensive comments contact the newspaper and request that offensive comments be removed.

"We want lively debate. We don't want people calling each other obscenities," O'Brien said. "We don't edit. We just simply delete it."

Readers who have posted at the Web site include Perkins Township Trustee Bill Dwelle.

Dwelle said he posted once and his wife posted once to answer readers who had made comments about an incident involving his family. He said he hasn't posted any other time.

Actually, Dwelle said, he wrote down the comments he wanted to make and his wife posted them for him.

"I'm one of those people who come under the heading of computer illiterate," he said.

The Poynter Institute, a Florida journalism school, hosted a series of articles on the topic, "Dialogue or Diatribe?" at the organization's Web site.

As part of the series, one Poynter staffer, Pat Walters, polled several news organizations on how they handle reader comments and posted an article on May 31.

The Wall Street Journal removes profanity and nasty personal attacks from blog posts and forums, but does not edit for spelling or grammar and tries to err on the side of allowing discussions, WSJ Managing Editor Bill Grueskin wrote.

The New York Times does not edit posts but moderates them, reading them before allowing them to be posted, said the Times' Heather Moore, the community editor. This keeps profanity and vicious personal attacks off of the Times' site but means there's a delay before comments are posted, she said.

"We hope the majority of folks who choose us for their news agree that protecting the conversation is worth it," she wrote.

The Washington Post employs a profanity filter but otherwise tries to deal with problems after they arise, Post Editor Jim Brady wrote.

Every comment has a "report abuse" link allowing readers to call the Post's attention to problematic posts, he noted.