Sunday, April 22, 2012
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Point/Counterpoint gets a makeover

Luanne Rife

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From the RoundTable blog

Two things occurred on Dec.4. I ate an ample slice of triple chocolate ganache cake to celebrate my birthday, and we launched the Point/Counterpoint feature in Horizon. All these months later, I can recall with delicious satisfaction every morsel of that cake. Regrettably, I am less than enamored with the progress of Point/Counterpoint. My editorial board colleagues - Editorial Page Editor Christina Nuckols, Elizabeth Strother and Christian Trejbal - agree we need to change our creation to help it grow into more of what we envision.

Before I explain the changes, I'll catch you up on what we've been doing the past few months. We designed this to run on a weekly rotation with each of us responsible for soliciting two people to present opposing viewpoints on a selected topic. (Our turns, it seems, come at whirlwind speed.) The topics have been varied and interesting. We've talked about guns on campuses, abortion regulations, post office closings, public broadcasting funding, uranium mining, Sunday hunting and much more. Debaters penned initial 450-word essays on their topic for an early print deadline. They then read their opponent's essay and wrote a rebuttal that appeared online only at the RoundTable blog.

Many of the participants also agreed to participate in 30-minute live chats online the Monday after their essays appeared in Horizon.

We think we've had some great topics (many of them quite controversial), and some wonderful experts to debate them, and we are thankful for their willingness to participate. But we have been disappointed in the response to their hard work.

We started out wanting a feature that would prompt civil, thoughtful, engaging discussions that could move a topic beyond talking points and partisan bickering. We think we've accomplished that. We had hoped, though, to engage readers in that discussion as well. That is where Point/Counterpoint has faltered.

With the quick-paced production schedule, debaters had to write their online rebuttals before print publication. This means they lost the benefit of feedback, and readers didn't have an opportunity to ask them questions or voice their opinions before we were off to the next topic.

And the online part hasn't been user-friendly, either. Point/Counterpoint was posted just once to the RoundTable with a second chance the day after, but only if a live chat was held. With all the other posts we place there, it became lost in the page scroll.

So we need to make some changes.

First, we're going to slow things down in order to really talk about an issue. Starting today, each topic will have a two-week cycle. You'll notice, also, that instead of placing this week's Point/Counterpoint on Page5, we are starting it out front. (It's a discussion you won't want to miss - and weigh in on - about the so-called Tebow bill that would allow home-schoolers to compete for spots on high school teams' rosters.) Our participants not only have a little more space to make their initial points, they'll have extra days to write their rebuttals.

Here's how it will work. This morning, their essays were published online at our editorial page section on roanoke.com and on our editorial page blog, the RoundTable, blogs.roa-noke.com/roundtable. Unlike past weeks, no rebuttals will appear.

Instead, each day during the week, we will place a fresh post on the RoundTable directing visitors to the Point/Counterpoint topic so they can continue throughout the week discussing the issue. Our panelists are encouraged to also join the discussion. They will submit their rebuttal for publication in next Sunday's Horizon on Page 5, and we may include comments from visitors to the RoundTable.

We are still debating among ourselves a few other changes and would appreciate your ideas as we continue to help this hybrid print-online feature evolve so that it is useful to print readers, electronic readers and those who take their paper both ways.

Here are a few things we'd like to know:

n Do you read Point/Counterpoint in print? Would you prefer it to remain anchored on Page5 so that there aren't any jumps, or would you like to see new topics start on the section front? Do you feel invited to participate?

n Have you looked for Point/Counterpoint online? Were you able to find it easily? Did you join a discussion? What would make your experience more worthwhile? Have you seen online debates at other websites that you thought were done well?

n What topics get your blood pounding? Your eyes glazing?

n What other suggestions would you have for us in presenting this feature or in drawing in participants?

Please let us know what you think about Point/Counterpoint, the changes we are making and suggestions on how it could be more relevant for you. We want it to be as rich and rewarding as a triple chocolate ganache cake. So help us tweak the recipe.

You can email comments to luanne.rife@roanoke.com.

Rife is a member of The Roanoke Times editorial board.

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