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RESEARCH

To Edit or Not

Many of the tact violators “are the passionate people. I’ll write and say, ‘I want you on the site, but could you dial it back a tiny bit?’”
—Lisa Williams
H2otown

For many sites, whether or not to edit is not a question. At Greensboro101, a blog aggregator, it would be a violation of the culture to screen, filter or edit the blogs that feed directly to the site. “Bloggers like the idea of not having a gatekeeper,” said site co-owner Roch Smith, who concurs with that ethic. He believes any editing or screening would discourage participation. Smith will, however, remove blogs that cross into seriously offensive territory.

The aversion to screening comments or editing posts is even stronger at Philly Future. Co-owner Karl Martino said he is trying to develop content guidelines together with the site’s volunteer team, but “you want people to be creative and to speak out. At the same time you want them to agree to a certain level of discourse. When we see people attacking we talk about what trolling is, but we don’t ban people from doing that kind of thing.

Lisa Williams takes the opposite tack with H2otown. She requires all posts, with the exception of event listings and comments, to go to a moderation queue. She screens them before posting, though she does not edit. She’d rather communicate with a poster than alter a post.

At sites where threads get personal or hostile, she said, “The first people to leave are the women, then the people over 55. I don’t want to have a site exclusively of young men.” Williams asks posters to observe Three T’s: truthfulness, tactfulness and transparency. Many of the tact violators “are the passionate people. I’ll write and say, ‘I want you on the site, but could you dial it back a tiny bit?’ “

Madison Commons, which is built on the model of training citizen journalists, edits citizen contributions for fairness and accuracy. Project director Lew Friedland, who edits along with a graduate student, said, “We try to detach [editing for accuracy] from voice and form. We want them to write in their voices.” An early submission in the life of the young site came from a citizen journalist who was not well educated, but whose piece was well reported. “We edited it in a way that it was coherent enough and grammatical enough that she wouldn’t be embarrassed by it,” Friedland said.

Many commercially backed sites moderate but don’t screen forum discussions but they do keep an eye on comments and lightly edit posts to topic sections or to the front page. At the same time editors are cognizant that the whole point of soliciting citizen news is to step out of the controlling role by giving contributors the greatest possible freedom to say what it is they want to say - and to keep them coming back.

At Wicked Local, to take one example, forum posts and photo uploads go live and unedited. But former online editor Courtney Hollands said she performed what she called “Good Samaritan” fixes on citizen-submitted articles and event postings. She checked for potentially embarrassing spelling and grammatical crimes, “and if I have a question” about the facts or the veracity of a post, “I will check in with the writer.” She approved stories and all comments before they went on the site.

The professionally produced copy that appears on some hyperlocal sites is actually unedited. New West publisher Jonathan Weber said he and managing editor Courtney Lowery have time to edit only those pieces that are sensitive. The writer/editors who run the local hubs in such places as Boise, Boulder and Missoula are not required to have a second reader on their posts.

Some independent site operators say they hold back from screening and editing citizen posts on the advice of lawyers. This is tricky territory for volunteers or solo entrepreneurs who do not operate under the umbrella of a media company or journalism school that is covered for liability. And very few have libel insurance: Only 7% of 129 survey respondents said their sites were insured, 50% were not; 43% didn’t know.

Philly Future‘s Karl Martino said most citizen journalism sites don’t have the tools yet to empower people to really report on their own. “What I’ve learned through the experience of getting legally threatened is that you need an infrastructure to support acts of journalism. We have the tools to write, but not to protect the people who actually do it.”

Some site runners say they’ve been advised that under certain forms of incorporation, they cannot be held responsible for libel or use of copyrighted material if they don’t screen or edit. Some organizations preserve their editing function by establishing terms of service where contributors assume liability for what they post.

Survey Highlights

Asked whether their sites edited contributions before they were posted, 40% of 141 replies said content was edited; 48% said it was not and 12% just didn’t know.  Half (50% of 133 replies) said offensive or inappropriate content was filtered out before posting. Most respondents (66% of 121 replies) said their sites removed offensive or inappropriate content after it was posted; but 17% of the respondents said such content was not removed, and 17% just didn’t know.

Half the respondents reported that 26 or fewer people overall were contributing content or skills to their enterprise, although site operators say many of those are just occasional contributors.

Does anyone get paid? Of the 78 who replied: 33% said their sites had no paid workers; 33% said only one or two workers got paid.

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