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posted: 2/14/2013 9:23 AM

The process of talking with -- and listening to -- each other

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Following along with the president's State of the Union speech Tuesday night online, I saw interesting tweets from several Twitter accounts to this effect: "Apparently, the only person not commenting on the State of the Union speech is the president who's giving it."

Inasmuch as I was scrutinizing the speech for ideas for an editorial to appear in the Daily Herald the next morning, these mildly cynical tweets had me loosening my collar just a little uneasily. But they also impressed on me an important observation about the nature of politics and public media: People like to talk. They like to share their ideas.

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About how committed to listening they are, one may sometimes wonder. But they do like to talk. And more than that, they like to engage -- both to share their own ideas with like-minded friends and to grapple intellectually with fellow talkers of a different mind.

Tapping into that pleasure is an important goal of a new approach to online commenting that we implemented at dailyherald.com a little over a week ago. If you pay much attention to online commenting, you've noticed something that the operators of nearly every news or information website that offers it has found. Hiding behind anonymity, people can be much more snide and cruel with their words than they might be otherwise. That tone can lead to a variety of problems of taste, but even more disappointingly turns away a large number of people who might like to join a conversation but aren't interested in participating in a festival of insults.

Not that all commenting devolved into such behavior, but much of it did. The result was a forum that we just weren't happy with. On our editorial page, we are constantly calling for more civility in public discourse, yet we were hosting this conversation where civility was in too-short supply.

So we initiated the system now in place that is hosted through Facebook. Commenting on a particular story is just as easy as before, but commenters have to identify themselves. Already we've seen a marked improvement in the decency and maturity with which people are agreeing and disagreeing with each other.

Better still, the new system lets our editors and reporters join the conversation in important new ways. Previously, we discouraged our own staff from entering the fray of online comments. We felt the intrusion could disrupt the flow of the public conversation or put a reporter or editor in the position of explaining a piece of work to a crowd of faceless antagonists rather than helping everyone dig more deeply into the facts and ideas of a story or commentary.

Now, though, the opposite is occurring. We are encouraging reporters, as they have the time and inclination, to jump into the conversations their stories start -- and sometimes to lead them. It can be tricky for them, because we expect them to report facts without taking sides and to keep their opinions about the characters or events they cover to themselves. But they, and commenters, can also benefit from the process. Commenters can get greater insight into the origins of a story or the goals of a specific report, and our writers and editors can get new, deeper ideas for how to develop and explore their stories.

We hope to see -- and to some extent are already finding -- more lively, thought-provoking conversations emerge. Of course, we want you to take part, too, and as part of the process, Deputy Managing Editor for Digital Operations Teresa Schmedding and I will host occasional online discussions about stories or commentary we think worthy of deeper debate. Look for it under the "Discuss" menu item at dailyherald.com

The process hasn't changed any of the other ways in which we seek to engage you in the newspaper or invite your participation in the life of your community. I still wrote our editorial, with input from the rest of the editorial board, for our print and online editions. Our Fence Post columns continue to publish letters on the topics readers care about. We still welcome handwritten mail in paper envelopes, if that's a person's preferred means of communication.

But now we have one more means of engagement that we're pleased to find still promotes people's urge to talk. And this one, we hope, may also encourage a bit more listening as well.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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