Lodinews.com, the Web site of the Lodi News-Sentinel, entered a new era earlier this month with two new services: We began accepting unedited reader comments at the end of local stories posted online and established an online discussion board, Lodinews.Conversations.
Although certainly not unique among online newspapers, these ventures are a significant step in the development of our Web site. In fact, News-Sentinel Publisher Marty Weybret called the changes a "revolution" at a staff meeting to discuss the efforts.
Revolution may be an apt description. Revolutions are, by nature, fraught with risks and uncertainty - but may also offer great rewards.
Readers are at the center of these changes, and we urgently want your feedback. More on that in a moment.
Right now, we're continuing to observe the new services. We're debating such things as how extensive our involvement needs to be in moderating the services and what standards, if any, we want to impose on the story comments and Lodinews.Conversations.
At this point, we're delighted with the number of responses to our stories. But we are also worried about the tone and content of some of the comments, especially ones posted to the stories about the tragic deaths of the two teenage girls in Lockeford on Christmas Eve.
Yet many of the comments on those stories were thoughtful and actually led us to do a follow-up story about the policies and laws the California Highway Patrol must follow when testing drivers for blood alcohol levels.
Some readers have accused us of exploiting a personal tragedy. We feel the comments have been useful in raising awareness of an important social issue: teenage drinking.
While we're pleased with the response to story comments, we're disappointed more people aren't using the Lodinews.Conversations discussion board.
Unlike story comments, there is no word limit on Lodinews.Conversations, which we hope will develop into an online destination for thoughtful debate, rather than the quick, off-the-cuff story comments.
Lodinews.Conversations also has open forums, so your comments don't have to be associated with a particular story.
How to commentStory comments can be entered at the bottom of every local story posted online. Simply type in a user name, your comment and click the "Post Comment" button.
The Lodinews.Conversations discussion board is available at http://www.lodinews.com/shared-content/phpbb/
Registration is required, but is fast and easy.
And unlike story comments, Lodinews.Conversations submissions will remain freely available indefinitely, while stories and their associated comments get placed in our paid-access archives after one week.
Lodinews.Conversations also requires users to register with a user name, password, e-mail address and short verification code that is supplied by the software during the registration process. Despite those requirements, you can still remain anonymous if you wish.
Quite frankly, the anonymity we currently allow in both the story comments and on Lodinews.Conversations makes us queasy. It goes against our long-established precedent of requiring full and verifiable identification from people writing letters to the editor, the "old" way of having your comments published.
But such anonymity is common on the Internet, and we wonder if requiring posters to identify themselves might stifle debate. In fact, we suspect that may be one reason why the Lodinews.Conversations discussion board has not taken off as fast as the story comments, even though registration is fast and easy, and users can remain anonymous.
Putting readers directly in touch with others through story comments and discussion boards are opportunities without precedent in the newspaper business. But they are opportunities we felt we needed to embrace if we are to continue our historical role as the voice of the community, and the place where the community can have its voices heard.
Our responsibility now is to use these opportunities to stir debates and conversations about the issues we all care about, to use this closer contact with readers to develop more and better stories. Please take time to visit our Web site, contribute your thoughts, and tell us what you think of all this. You're welcome to post comments at the end of this column, of course. But we've also set up a forum on Lodinews.Conversations where we hope you'll take the time to post ideas about policies we might develop in relation to story comments or the discussion board.
Welcome to the revolution.
News-Sentinel Internet Services Manager Simon Birch contributed to this column.