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The wild world of Web comments
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A "Story Chat" page at the St. Cloud Times. "Story Chat" allows readers to comment on specific stories on the St. Cloud Times Web site. Sometimes the conversations get heated, but there's always a balance of views. (Image courtesy of the St. Cloud Times)
Officials at the St. Cloud Times are suprised at the number of visitors to their Web site. The site gets as many hits as newspapers in larger communities. Part of the popularity is from a part of the site called "Story Chat". It's a special system that lets readers comment on specific stories. The St. Cloud Times is one of a handful of newspapers nationwide using the system. They say it allows readers to closely interact with the newspaper. But the conversations can get heated and sometimes offensive. And that has some questioning the value of "Story Chat".

St. Cloud, Minn. — Plenty of newspapers across the country allow readers to comment on the news at their Web sites. But often, readers have to navigate through Internet billboards pages away from the story to offer their two cents. The process is easier at the St. Cloud Times' Web site,

On "Story Chat," readers comment on specific stories. Their comments go online immediately, and allow for back and forth conversations between readers. But when "Story Chat" started three years ago, some at the St. Cloud Times worried that the new system might get the paper in trouble.

John Yenne, the St. Cloud Times' online project manager, says even though some thought "Story Chat" was a risk, it gave the newspaper a desperately needed connection to the reader. A connection some hoped would translate into more readers and more profit.

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Image Leland Rueb has spent a lot of time on "Story Chat"

"I felt like this interactivity is what we needed to tap as a newspaper," Yenne says. "We've been losing subscribers for years now. It's just this little decline -- you can see it happening on every single chart, so we're not engaging people. I felt like this is one concept -- not the end-all and be-all, but one concept to engage them again."

Readers are able to engage the newspaper through "Story Chat," but most often the readers engage each other. And sometimes the conversations get nasty. Readers attack each other, and throw threats back and forth.

Web comments about vandalism at African-owned businesses in St. Cloud were riddled with racist outbursts. Yenne says regardless of the tone, it's conversation that should be public.

"You notice we don't always get the most thoughtful people out there, but these are people's thoughts. It really lets them express what they're thinking. It may be way off on the fringe, and it may be offensive, but they all have this range of opinions," Yenne says.

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Image John Yenne is the St. Cloud Times' online project manager.

The system has some devoted followers. Leland Rueb has spent plenty of time on St. Cloud Time's "Story Chat." Rueb has argued over issues with other readers online for hours. He says "Story Chat" is a good public forum for discussion. But Rueb says one argument he had with another reader got out of hand.

"There was one case where someone had posted my address and phone number. That concerned me, so I had to take it to the St. Cloud police. That's where I say we've gone too far," Rueb says.

The St. Cloud Times is careful to monitor "Story Chat" for anything that breaks the rules. Posters are not allowed to use profanity, personal attacks, or copyrighted material.

But even if they break the rules, or break the law, the St. Cloud Times can't get in trouble for what readers say. The Communications Decency Act gives online newspapers protection from defamation suits that might come about because of something a readers writes.

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Image Looking for ways to engage readers

Wendy Seltzer is a fellow with Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Seltzer says without that protection, "Story Chat" probably wouldn't be offered.

"That kind of immunity gives the newspaper pretty wide latitude, and perhaps gave them the freedoms to open these forums up without someone from the legal team saying, 'Sorry, too risky, can't do it even though it seems exciting,'" Seltzer says.

Seltzer says "Story Chat" is a great exercise in public discussion and the right to free speech. She's read through comments on the St. Cloud Times Web site, and says even when things get offensive, there's some balance to the discussion.

"Anyone can counter speech they don't like with more speech," Seltzer says. "Maybe we don't need the law to step in right away, because somebody else can come back and say, 'No, that's not true, here's my side of the story.'"

Currently, "Story Chat" posters can participate on a mostly anonymous level. But early next year, readers may be required to register with their names and an e-mail address. That will likely cut down on the number of messages posted on "Story Chat."

Even so, officials at the St. Cloud Times say the system has been a success. "Story Chat" has given the Times story ideas, insight into the community and a closer connection to their readers.

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