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Newspapers struggle with online comments

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When the St. Cloud Times carries a story that has anything to do with race, the online comments pour in. Visitors, who aren't required to offer their real names on screen, often trade messages littered with racial stereotypes.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

It's the hot-button issues like politics, abortion and crime, that really fire people up in Story Chat on the St. Cloud Times Web site.  

But when the site carries a story that has anything to do with race, the comments pour in even faster, resulting in hundreds of postings in a few hours.  Visitors, who aren't required to offer their real names on screen, often trade messages littered with racial stereotypes.    

Some worry those comments make the community look bad.  In fact, it's an issue that St. Cloud State University professor Malcom Nazareth brought up at a recent public hearing on racial profiling in St. Cloud.    

John Bodette in the office
Executive editor of the St. Cloud Times, John Bodette, warns others in the newspaper business that some online discussions may turn an editor's stomach. But it's still what online newspaper readers want.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"There are a lot of hateful people in St. Cloud that express their views on articles and things which are happening here,"  Nazareth said. "Let them not be cowards, let them come out and put their names right there, so we can also see who these people are." 

When the story about that racial profiling hearing hit the St. Cloud Times Web site just a few hours later, the response was no surprise.   Within 24 hours, there were nearly 800 postings, many with their usual fervor.

Here are a few examples, taken verbatim from the paper's Web site:

"Is there a hearing for the whites also?  don't do anything wrong and you won't have any problems!  going 31 in a 30 is speeding, crossing over the lines while making a lane change without signaling is a crime.  Deal with it!  I have been spoken to for crossing the street outside of the crosswalks, while walking downtown, I am white, no big deal, I had nothing to hide.  They just told me, at a busy intersection, to be more careful and be in full view.  damn those rasicist, it was a lit area and the drivers might not have ben able to see me because of my light complextion!" Posted by guard 1954 from home

"What B.S.   If they don't like it here I hope they don't let the door hit them on the butt on their way out.  We all have had things about different departments that we felt were unfair. The difference is, we are white and adults so we realize that things happen and we can't let it color our life and sit around crying about it.  I have seen so many things about blacks and somalians that I have disliked, but I don't dislike all blacks or somalians or hispanics because of some.  But I won't kiss their butts either to make them feel loved.  There will always be divides in life, men/women..rich/poor..short/tall..good/bad...intelligent/stupid...and you can't make all things equal.  grow up and get on with your life you sniveling idiots!"  Posted by chattycathy from Sartell

"Regardless of what side your on - on this issue - one thing is for certain...people in St Cloud are getting darn tired of being called racist simply because they're white and have an opinion.   I personally am getting tired of all this "diversity" crap being shoved down our throats at every turn.  Look, if you wanna live here.  Great.  I'm happy to see you.  But if you're gonna whine and complain and sulk (look at the pic in the times) organize "hate whitey" meetings...then go back to wherever it was you came from, because you're certainly not from here." Posted by Colorado Kidd from Cloudy Town

There were roughly an equal number of visitors who posted comments challenging those views. 

When John Bodette, executive editor of the St. Cloud Times, sees comments like those, he understands why the feisty online discussions make some in the community cringe.  But he says if those sentiments are out there, it's better to discuss them in the open. 

"It's having those people come out into the sunlight and expose what their thoughts are.   If it continues the conversation in this community about the problems of racism, then I think it's a good thing.  But often times it's very difficult to read," Bodette says.

"Trying to maintain civility amid a robust discussion is where we're running into challenges into article comments."

The St. Cloud Times doesn't edit the comments on its Web site, but it will revoke the commenting privileges of people who violate their rules.  About one person a month out of 5,000 registered users gets kicked off for posting obscenities, personal information about other people or threatening language. 

The policy for online comments varies from newspaper to newspaper.   The Sioux Falls Argus Leader and the St. Paul Pioneer Press let readers comment freely on all stories.  The Forum in Fargo does not allow readers to comment on specific stories, and  neither does the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Although an online news editor says it's something they'll put in place before the end of the year. 

The Brainerd Dispatch and Duluth News Tribune allow readers to comment, but in separate forums set up by an administrator or readers themselves.   

The West Central Tribune in Willmar invites online comments on its work.  Editor Kelly Boldan says most days they host insightful and healthy debates among readers.  

But Boldan has watched the discussion around stories on crime, or coverage of immigration, turn into onscreen shouting matches that appear to have little value.  

"If the conversation degrades to such a point where people are just calling each other names and they can't control it, then we turn off the comments to that specific story," Boldan says.

On the West Central Tribune Web site, readers are required to post some personal information, but it still affords them enough anonymity to write things that Boldan thinks they wouldn't say in face-to-face conversation. 

That can be freeing to advocates of online debate.  But it poses an ethical dilemma for some in the newspaper business, like Steve Dzubay, publisher of the Star-Observer in Hudson, Wisconsin. 

"The new age of anonymity, we struggle with," Dzubay says. "Trying to maintain civility amid a robust discussion is where we're running into challenges with article comments." 

For two years, the Hudson paper allowed online discussion of its stories, but recently the paper took the option down.  That's because some people were posing as public officials in online forums.  

That ruse, along with what Dzubay considers the "bathroom wall mentality" of anonymous online comments, has him wondering if it puts the paper's credibility at risk. 

"I don't particularly want to be associated with something that is just nothing but a big muck or a mire of a place, that people go to be shocked or trying to outdo one another.  That's not who we are," Dzubay says. 

A editorial in the Hudson Star-Observer from Oct. 11, 2007 says the paper will again host online discussions someday.  But paper staff may monitor the comments in order to weed out false and misleading postings.

The executive editor of the St. Cloud Times warns others in the newspaper business that while some online discussions may turn an editor's stomach, it's still what online newspaper readers want.