I was invited to participate in a roundtable/brainstorming session last night regarding reader comments on local media websites. The meeting was sponsored by the Associated Press Managing Editors association and hosted by the Knoxville News Sentinel.
The discussions were videotaped and will be published on the News Sentinel's website as a resource for other journalists and the public. Knoxville's meeting is part of a nationwide APME project that will involve six roundtable discussions on topics related to online journalism credibility.
There was lively discussion among a diverse panel representing citizens, public officials, bloggers, journalists, and media executives. KNS Editor Jack McElroy stressed that media representatives were there to listen to concerns and they hoped to come away with insights that will help guide their policy on community participation. He said they would provide a follow up report on actions taken. WBIR News Director Bill Shory also participated.
The discussion focused on the problem of mean-spirited and abusive comments that seem to inevitably occur with certain types of stories. A number of scenarios were presented, prompting discussion of the problems and some good ideas for dealing with them.
Another topic was the perception that media websites promote controversial stories and "trashy" journalism to drive up page views that generate more revenue.
E.W. Scripps VP of Interactive Rusty Coats said that in all the years he has been in the business no advertiser has ever come to him and asked for a paper to publish more trash. He said advertisers do not want to be associated with it.
News Sentinel Publisher Bruce Hartmann said the purpose of online comments is to promote dialogue and create a community forum. He said that 20% to 30% of the News Sentinel's audience is online and it generates about 7% of revenues. He noted that 50,000 comments are not significant in terms of revenue as compared to the site's 1.5 million to 2 million page views per month.
Jack McElroy is more concerned with the journalism aspects. He says the media's role has shifted and they are no longer gatekeepers. It is now a two-way world and an interactive process, and that to remain relevant and important they must stay at the center of the dialogue. We discussed this a little more during a break, and Mr. McElroy said that, as a journalist, he always comes down on the side of free speech and their goal is to be the online "town square."
I appreciate the opportunity to take part in the informative discussion and thank the News Sentinel and Jack McElroy for inviting me to participate. I hope local media took away some good ideas and I'm looking forward to their follow up action report.
Other participants were:
• Becky Hancock, citizen online participant
• Bob Benz, Radiant Markets (moderator)
• Brittany Fulmer (coach Phil Fulmer's daughter)
• Chuck Jensen, citizen online participant
• Deena Christian, mother of murder victim Channon Christian
• Elaine Kramer, APME (sponsor)
• Indya Kincannon, Knox Co. School Board
• Jack Lail, News Sentinel Director of Innovation
• Jigsha Desai, News Sentinel Online Editor
• LeRoy Thompson, BDT Development & Management
• Dr. Loida Velazquez, Educator and Latino community activist
• Mike Arms, Chief of Staff, Knox Co. Mayor's Office
• Tom Chester, News Sentinel Director of News Operations
• Tom McAdams, Attorney
• William Rukeyser, noted financial journalist and community leader
News Sentinel online producers Lauren Spuhler and Erin Chapin handled videography, and E.W. Scripps Interactive Newspaper content manager Patrick Beeson was taking notes.
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