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Newspapers want readers’ help with Web credibility

November 2, 2009

ST. LOUIS (AP) – Publishing online creates a new set of problems for newspapers. Some people ask to have stories “unpublished,” while others leave nasty, unsigned comments on articles. Now some newspapers are appealing to their own readers for advice.

The readers are taking part in six “Online Journalism Credibility” projects that were sponsored by the Associated Press Managing Editors group and detailed Thursday at APME’s conference in St. Louis.

The public’s involvement suggests audiences care deeply about the credibility of newspapers, said Elaine Kramer, APME’s project manager. And it shows “that newsrooms are on the right track when they try to make journalism much more of a two-way conversation with readers,” she said.

Readers are still getting used to seeing stories about them and people they know get catalogued by search engines that don’t forget anything. The Toronto Star’s public editor, Kathy English, said she gets requests to take stories down about once a month. Even a former colleague once asked her to make some embarrassing news go away.

She surveyed newspaper practices and found many editors viewed “unpublishing” as censorship. When she wrote a column asking readers their thoughts on 10 such requests faced by various newspapers in recent months, the views of most respondents were in line with editors’.

The Knoxville News Sentinel held a community round table to explore troubling aspects of anonymous, racially charged Web comments that had been elicited by news coverage of a carjacking-rape-and-murder case. One community member described the comments as “toxic to the soul.”

The News Sentinel ran video of the community session and put several readers’ blog posts on its Web site. The newspaper is now more willing to strike abusive comments.

“There’s not an easy answer,” said Jack Lail, the newspaper’s director of news innovation. “Some horrific comments do reflect readers in your community. The best we can do is set some kind of bar that communities are going to have to be above.”

In Texas, The Victoria Advocate lets readers contribute blogs, comments, calendar items, photographs and even stories to the Web site. When the newspaper commissioned a study of 400 readers, gauging their trust of newsroom-generated content versus that submitted by readers, respondents appeared to value straight news much more than content with opinions, Editor Chris Cobler said.

For instance, at a town hall meeting on the subject this month, Cory Garcia of Victoria said he likes the idea of being able to blog online, but worries that civil discourse can become uncivil.

Now the newspaper is considering a disclaimer on reader blogs and might create a board of readers who would discuss Internet ethics.

“People still trust the news and get the difference,” Cobler said. “The challenge is how to engage the community without chipping away at the newspaper’s credibility.”

As news organizations’ revenue has dropped, they’ve felt more pressure to experiment with a type of advertising that is associated with a news story’s subject matter and is placed alongside, or pops up when a cursor touches a key word in a story.

The Seattle Times tested 18 types of this so-called contextual advertising on its Web site. Then it used reader surveys and focus groups to determine whether placement of such ads affected the credibility of either the advertisers or the newspaper.

The results were mixed, but the exercise helped the newspaper “figure out where the land mines were,” said Kathy Best, managing editor for digital news and innovation.

Readers didn’t like an ad for jobs at Weyerhaeuser Co. that popped up as they read a story about the timber industry. They also disapproved of an ad for a land commissioner candidate that was next to an investigative story on landslides and the government’s policy on clear-cutting forests. The readers said it hurt the credibility of both the candidate and the news story.

On the other hand, readers said they valued contextual advertising when it was local and useful.

In another of the APME projects, the Sioux City (Iowa) Journal asked readers how the newspaper could improve standards and accuracy in gathering and reporting news online. And the Salem (Mass.) News is soliciting input on how its involvement with social networking sites affects credibility.

The six projects will be posted on APME’s Web site and are the subject of a webinar series beginning Nov. 5 through Poynter’s News University.

“I think we’ll learn more about how precious credibility is to readers as well as to journalists,” Kramer said. “Credibility is our stock in trade. We better have it.”

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