Consumers push the envelope, Los Angeles Times pushes back
Fresh cement is an invitation to a handprint. A whitewashed
wall begs for graffiti. A light in the dark beckons to self-destructive
The Los Angeles
Times, opening up its editorial columns to wikitorial wags,
whims and wastrels, might have expected that it would also
wind up with the inevitable mix of the thoughtful, the creative
and the irresponsible. It's the latter, infesting the site
with pornography, which caused the Times to abort its invitation
to readers to rewrite the paper's editorials.
Ostensibly, the paper opened its virtual editorial pages to
stimulate citizen participation. Unquestionably, the paper sought
to perk interest and raise flagging circulation. There is nothing
inherently wrong with trying to raise market standing by rousing
a marketplace of ideas. But coarse and crude were hardly the
ideas the Times sought.
So why bother? Does new technology demand a new format for the
editorial page? Was the Times' short-lived experiment another
ill-advised because-we-can, rather than because-we-should decision?
There are two answers. We applaud the effort to find new ways
to participate and communicate. Thanks, as the Times put it, "to
the thousands of people who logged on in the right spirit." Unfortunately,
as the Times lamented," a few readers were flooding the
site with inappropriate material."
But the other response may be to ask, what's wrong with the
editorial process as we know it now? Editorials are, in the first
place, the result of a collective effort by an editorial board
to determine a paper's view on a significant issue. Letters to
the editor have long provided a venue for public response. Letters
to the editor, of course, may be selectively printed and shortened
by the newspaper. The wikitorial variation is, in contrast, uncontrollable.
Come one; come all.
Clearly, one dilemma of democracies is encouraging participation.
On the other hand, one benefit of democracies is the option to
ignore the process. But journalism, on either its reportorial
or editorial side, demands clarity. The piling-on approach of
the wikitorial invites the muddling of multiple opinions virtually
layered atop each other. This is about journalism, not archeology.
With the Web and the blog, hardly anyone is denied a billboard
for personal views. Do your own thing in your own space.
In a sense, the approach the Los Angeles Times might have considered
is one that opens the page to broader opinions, but doesn't open
the door to indiscriminate postings. That requires a gatekeeper.
While it's not as dramatic as creating a vast whitewashed fence,
it's better than walling off the marketplace.
The media will - and should - continue to explore new ways to
engage the public in the communications process.
• CBSNews.com is expanding its offerings to include a
Web log called Public Eye derived from viewer questions and comments.
• WABC-TV in New York is soliciting cell phone pictures
and video to augment its news coverage. New technology; not a
new idea. "Newshounds" have been sharing their home
videos of tornadoes and such with the media for years.
• Bluffton Today and Blufftontoday.com are
a new daily newspaper and online tandem dedicated to covering
that South Carolina community - almost to the exclusion of the
rest of the world - by encouraging reader participation in the
story selection process. "Tell us about your traffic hell" and "Fire
ants & ticks" are on the menu as I write this. There
are also "10 users and 111 guests online."
Let the experiments continue. Don't let the socially inept and
irresponsible sour the process. The Los Angeles Times might have
better anticipated the consequences of its effort, but we shouldn't
be all that surprised. The Web is, after all, a mix of inspiration
I recently visited Berlin for the first time since the 1989
fall of the wall that epitomized the difference between democracies
and totalitarian governments. Only fragments of that ignominious
wall are left standing to remind us. On one side, it was frequently
bloodied as East Germans sought to escape their confinement.
On the western side, the wall was a kaleidoscope of graffiti
decrying any attempt to repress the public spirit. It was not
all printable, but it beat the alternative.