USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Tips for Online Newspapers

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To foster more meaningful online forums, news sites should ban anonymous postings and get more aggressive in monitoring and moderating the groups.

Newspapers looking to foster online discussion need to keep in mind two axioms:

  • The more generic the topic, the less quality the discussion.
  • The more anonymous the participants, the less quality the discussion.

The first axiom should be self-evident. Discuss a general topic, such as the Bush Administration, and much of the discussion will decline into trash. Talk about a more specific topic, such as whether the Bush Administration should involve itself in Liberian peacekeeping, and the discussion quality will be higher and will decline more slowly.

Because most newspaper news is generic, the first axiom is troublesome for online newspaper discussion forums. However, there are some solutions. 

Newspapers that allow anonymous online postings are being irresponsible to their readers and are themselves taking irresponsible legal risks.

The second axiom also should be self-evident. Bulletin boards and discussion lists that allow anonymous postings are strewn with trash talk and cacophony. Those that don't allow anonymous postings almost always have much higher quality discussions. The more identifiable the poster, the more responsible the poster will be. 

I'm amazed at the number of newspapers operating online discussion forums that allow anonymous postings. In the consulting business, we have a technical term for that practice: Stupidity. Those newspapers would never allow anyone to post something anonymously in a printed edition, so why are those newspapers allowing anyone to post something anonymously in an online edition? Is it really any wonder that their online forums are replete with trash talk, caterwauling and bedlam?

Newspapers that allow anonymous online postings are being irresponsible to their readers and are themselves taking irresponsible legal risks.  

Forgive me for being blunt, but the primary reason they engage in this stupid practice is simply that many online newspapers prefer to mimic than to think. They mimic what non-newspaper sites do. If Yahoo Forums or Slashdot or other non-newspaper discussion sites allow anonymous postings, these newspapers think that operating discussion sites means allowing anonymous postings. They forget that newspapers have special responsibilities (ethical, journalistic, and legal) to their communities -- responsibilities that non-newspaper sites don't have. 

What online newspapers should do first is to prohibit anonymous postings. Sites that require overall registration can easily do this. Newspapers that don't require registration should at least require it for forum postings.

Often when I recommend this to online newspaper executives, some respond, "But requiring registration might deter some people from posting." Think about that response. Should a newspaper really want to publish something that's anonymous even to it? If someone wants the newspaper to publish their opinion, shouldn't that someone be willing to stand up for that opinion?  

Which leads to the second thing that online newspapers should do to foster quality discussions: Monitor and moderate. Why is it that many newspapers believe that their online discussion forums are something they shouldn't actively have to operate? Any newspaper that -- virtually or physically -- operates a discussion forum has responsibilities (again: ethical, journalistic and legal) to monitor and to moderate it.

This is an edited excerpt of an essay Crosbie originally posted to Poynter.org's Online-News discussion list on August 5, 2003.

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