Frits van ExterThis is an extract from a speech given by Frits van Exter, former editor-in-chief of Trouw newspaper in the Netherlands, about ethics of reader participation online at the World Editors Forum, in Cape Town last week (a video of the full address can be found beneath the extract).

When you run a nice little newspaper with high standards you find yourself wondering sometimes about the website.

There is a thing about interactivity; it actually means that you run an open sewer system. The readers, your audience, those who use your site are using it to throw all their garbage through your lines 24/7.

What does it mean when you don’t have the resources to verify, to select or to think? It can mean that you can be [only] as reliable as the next blogger. But if you want to think, if you want to take your time, you will be perceived as being as slow as the postman.

The amazing worldwide web, what does it mean to your little paper? It can mean you are hosting a clash of civilisations and because of linking the beheading of a hostage or some child-porn may only be one click away.

Is this the price you have to pay to survive, is this inevitable? Is it true that we first have to worry about grabbing all the traffic we can and forget about old standards and later on see what boundaries we should provide or have been made for us?

To me it’s not something that can be written by lawmakers. First and foremost are you prepared in your newsroom and with your audience to debate your choices?

For that you need a newsroom that feels secure where you can talk openly about successes and mistakes. You also need to have interactivity with your audience that is profound, not shallow.

You should, perhaps, start with some questions. Why are you online anyway? What makes you different in print and online? What makes you unique? And especially, who do you want to reach?

Do you want to appeal to everyone or are you targeted towards a group? ... you should also ask yourself how far you want to stretch. Do you want to be the editor of an elite paper with high standards for a greying audience and at the same time run a sort of yellow press website, can you do that?

To some people it looks like online ethics have to battle with nature’s forces and that you can’t win it, you have to go with the flow.

But there are tools [to help you manage the battle] …registration, there are several papers in Europe that use registration and you can decide yourself how high the barrier should be.

Moderation, it's a matter of resources but you can decide what to accept on your site. Some will call you a censor but others will feel more at home. Think about the long-term strategy here. Who are you catering for? Do you want to give your audience a home on the site, do you want to interact with your audience or do you want to interact with everybody?

Communication, we're in the communication business but it's always a problem to communicate, inside our newsroom and with or audience.

Make clear what you ethics are, stick to them and be as transparent as possible about them. Put them up for debate. When you link, if you think it’s relevant to link to the hanging of Saddam, warn your audience in case they are not used to that type of graphic image.

Delegation is also a useful tool. Your audience can help you keep up standards, they can police your site and they can help you to set up a reputation system.

At Trouw on the news sites we moderated actively, it can mean that some posts are delayed for several hours but that's the choice we maded, to moderate before publication…it's a choice and sometimes you can be punished for it but people appreciate it.

The full address:

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