A new resource: readers

CommentsBoxOn Friday, I posted a look at an article about a West Virginia university permitting students to take off for pagan holidays. A lively discussion ensued about whether pagan should be capitalized and which religious groups should be under the pagan umbrella. And that's just the last post I wrote. Hardly a day goes by where readers don't add significantly to the value of this site and the content we produce. We also receive topic suggestions from readers and a good number of emails from the Godbeat journalists whose work we analyze. All this to say that GetReligion benefits greatly from our community of readers. This past week, The New York Times began letting readers comment on its website in response to stories and editorials. Clark Hoyt, the paper's current public editor, wrote about the experiment. The most interesting thing to come out of his column is the news that the paper hired four employees to screen reader submissions before they're posted. Comments are required to be coherent, on point, not obscene or abusive, and not a personal attack. If only they had those same requirements for Maureen Dowd! I kid, I kid.

Hoyt says the newspaper's goal is to nurture a healthy, civil discourse on the topics of the day:

"We have two great assets," said Jonathan Landman, the deputy managing editor who is in charge of the newsroom's online efforts. "One is the quality of the material we produce; the other is the quality of our readers, some of the most curious, intelligent and sophisticated people on earth." Putting the knowledge of readers together with the journalism of The Times, he said, could result in "news and information of greater power, reach and quality than even a great newsroom can produce on its own."

Ooh! Ooh! The New York Times says I'm curious, intelligent and sophisticated! But that's not the only reason why I mention this on a blog about religion news. Hoyt explains that the Times' blogs, which have already allowed reader comments, struggle with intolerance and vitriol -- much of it religion-related:

Given the current political atmosphere, The Caucus is a magnet for splenetic comments, many of which don't make it onto the Web site. A posting by a Times correspondent about Barack Obama is sure to bring out racist submissions. Mention of Mitt Romney inspires "just horrific misstatements about Mormonism and his own life," [Kate Phillips, editor of The Caucus,] said. Wild claims that Hillary Clinton is a murderer don't make it either.

Several weeks ago, Phillips intervened in a running debate among readers over news that Christian conservatives were talking about supporting a third-party candidate for president. "Please refrain from the vicious name-calling," she wrote, "not only against one another but also against one another's political and religious views and identities. The attacks are neither constructive nor instructive and will not be published."

Going back to Landman's comment about the brilliance of his paper's readers . . . I think there is no area where reader engagement could provide better results than with religion news and op-eds. Religion is a challenging beat to handle -- even harder, perhaps, if it's not officially a reporter's beat. And yet so many stories are overtly about religion or have religion ghosts. Religion news tends to benefit a bit more from a full fleshing out of details and historical context. While it's certainly risky to engage readers on religion, papers that do so may find themselves the richer for it.

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