Newspaper Site Pulls Plug on Unruly Discussion Forums

By: Steve Outing The cliche about the Internet is that it's like the "Wild, Wild West" -- an unruly place where laws are still being written and the sheriff hasn't quite gotten things under control yet. That certainly can be the case in online discussion forums. Just ask the folks at the Dallas Morning News' Web site, whose discussion forums got a little too unruly recently -- so much so that the forums have been shut down temporarily.

After a serious threat was posted to one of the News' forums, coming on the heels of repeated inappropriate and illegal behavior by a small group of users, the newspaper decided to close the eight discussion forums on the Web site for a short while.

According to Dale Peskin, assistant managing editor for development and new media at the News, the closure is designed as a "cooling off period" to get users of the forums to think about if they want a discussion area and about how they need to act if they expect the newspaper to continue to maintain it.

The forums -- which cover topics like local pro sports teams (Cowboys, Rangers, Stars and Mavericks); the Clinton sex scandal; religion; and a local school district controversy -- will probably be reopened later this week or early next, once a new registration process is installed. Peskin says that with reluctance, his site will start requiring that forum participants identify themselves in a registration process and during online conversations, and agree when signing up to abide by a rules of conduct. He expects this policy will reduce usage of the discussion areas somewhat.

Serious threat

He won't say exactly what the e-mail threat was about, but it was serious enough that the News staff notified the FBI and local police. The threat was kept live on the Web site for several hours, as law officers gathered evidence about who posted it, attempting to track the person down through the e-mail account's Internet service provider.

Peskin says the decision to close the forums followed several other violations of the Web site's discussion forum participation policy, which is posted prominently on the site and is seen by anyone who wants to post a message. "These violations have included obscenity or suggestive language, sexual and racial insults, and misrepresentations," Peskin wrote in a Web page explaining the decision to close the forums. "We regret that the actions of a few have harmed the many, but we will not tolerate improper conduct under our sponsorship."

Last December in this column, I wrote about the News' discussion forums' problems, and Peskin's strategy then was to tame unruly behavior online by simply asking people to "mind their manners." Largely, the strategy worked and the tone and tenor of the discussions took on a more civil tone. But several months later, things began deteriorating and Web site managers felt the need to take additional actions.

Peskin says he doesn't have the answer to keeping the forums clear of obscenity, racist remarks, libel and slander. "We're not in the solutions business; we're still in the understanding business," he says, trying to figure out how to be a responsible overseer of a public discussion forum while allowing people free rein and not stifling the conversation.

It's a tough balancing act. As a newspaper well respected in your community, you don't want to attach your name to an online environment where some people are running amok. But neither do you want to squash free speech.

Peskin says that he has no plans to "moderate" the forums, where staffers would screen postings before they are published online. "Something is diminished if we moderate. It's really not a discussion." He also recognizes that there are serious limits to how much the newspaper can or should control the discussion. If an organization feels the need to have too much control over an online discussion area, "then it should get out of that business."

Free speech

A few people have complained that by trying to eliminate bad online behavior the News is squashing First Amendment free speech rights, but Peskin says the complaints were fewer than he'd expected. "This is not a First Amendment issue," he says. The types of messages that the Web site staff removes from the forums are those that threaten other people, slander or libel them, or otherwise break the law.

Three people on the News' 8-person Web staff are responsible (among other duties) for monitoring the forums. They typically check in several times a day, and remove any postings that violate the site's stated rules of conduct -- most often obscene messages. Peskin says this has become a fairly time-consuming task for those employees. The forums typically generate 600-700 messages a day, but that can increase to a couple thousand or more depending on news events. After a Dallas Cowboys football game, the Cowboys forum often attracts 2,000 or so participants.

Some forums are more troublesome than others. The Cowboys forum sometimes attracts inappropriate postings, and the religion forum has had problems with messages promoting gay-bashing. A forum devoted to a school controversy in which various ethnic groups have been vying for control over the district has seen its share of racist and sexist rhetoric.

Like most online forums, a good degree of self-policing by participants takes place, where forum members chastise those who violate the rules. But that's often not enough.

Peskin remains committed to maintaining the online forums, which are designed to attract a broad cross-section of the public. They are not like a newspaper Letters to the Editor page, and the newspaper must learn how to run them, Peskin says. "We're trying not to think like a newspaper all the time."

Give the News credit for at least tackling the issue. Says Peskin of other newspapers who face similar problems, "I think most people (in the newspaper Web business) are avoiding wrestling with these issues." No wonder. Online discussion forums by nature can be a rough and tumble environment.

Contact: Dale Peskin,

The new Monitor that looks old

The Christian Science Monitor's Web site has gotten its new-old look. As previewed in this column in recent weeks, the Monitor this week began using a Web news presentation system from the Infosis Corp. (UK) which presents news on the Web in a format that uses fascimile images of printed newspaper pages as the dominant news navigation device. The Web user clicks on a headline on the newspaper "page" and the full text of the story pops up in another part of the screen. Needless to say, the concept is controversial. (The Infosis system is in use only in the news sections of the e-Monitor, not the whole site.)

Using a laptop computer, I found some of the headlines difficult to read on the site. But Monitor director of electronic publishing Dave Creagh says, "We found in serious third-party testing that the headlines are legible, if only just in some cases." If you use the latest version of the Microsoft Explorer browser, the headlines also appear above the page image in the left frame, which overcomes the legibility problem. This feature should work in future versions of Netscape's browser as well.

Creagh says the new site design was optimized for Netscape and Microsoft Explorer versions 4.0 and above, and may work a little slower for lesser browser software. "We feel justified in doing so because more than 60% of our readers use (4.0+ browsers)," he says.

Contact: Dave Creagh,

When your boat is your baby

In a recent column item, I wrote about a new baby announcement self-publishing Web site for parents created by the Rocky Mountain News. Ronald Dupont Jr., Internet editor of Sunline, points out that his Florida site has been offering similar functionality for a couple years now. Sunline, which won top honors (small-newspaper category) in Editor & Publisher's EPpy online newspaper awards competition for two straight years, has several features that allow people to create Web pages for free about newborns, children and grandchildren; late loved ones; pets; and cars. Coming soon: an area that will allow Sunline users to create pages about their boats.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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