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Minding Our Business

 

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 moths.

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 and exasperation.

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.

 
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The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.


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