Newspapers Break the Mask of Anonymity

As traditional journalism (print and broadcast) struggles to find a way in the digital realm, one of the biggest hurdles has been how to deal with the feedback. Reporters and editors aren’t used to “listening” in an age where everyone can be a publisher. Sure, there are “Letters to the Editor,” but those always came with the caveat and expectation of heavy moderation.

Later, it occurred to newsrooms that allowing people to comment on stories would be great. Anything involving your community of readers must be good; if it drives pageviews, then so much the better. But they were not ready to deal with the problems of trolls and astroturf (like I chronicled in Alabama’s Bingo Battle.)

The award-winning Anniston Star and all its sister publications at Consolidated Publishing are turning the Klieg lights on the cockroaches with a new policy for online comments:

Readers who like to comment on stories on the St. Clair Times Web site were surprised this morning to discover that their comments are now identified by their e-mail addresses instead of a user name.

Implementation of a new company-wide policy got a little ahead of notification in this case. However, as of today, all the Web sites operated by the Consolidated Publishing Co., which include the St. Clair Times, the Daily Home, the Anniston Star, the Jacksonville News, the Cleburne News and the Piedmont Journal, are publishing the e-mail addresses of those who choose to comment on online articles.

The purpose of the new policy is not to discourage comments, but rather to discourage personal insults, accusations and the anonymous publication of personal information about other people.

The St. Clair Times and all of Consolidated Publishing values readers’ opinions and comments. We believe those comments have greater strength when they are accompanied by the identity of the writer. That is why we insist on having full contact information when we publish letters to the editor, and why we now publish contact information with online comments.

(I linked to the version in the St. Clair Times, because the Anniston Star has a very strict paywall and I don’t want to share a dead link.)

What this means

This is a big step for transparency, and an indication publishers are starting to see the diminishing returns of having anonymous free expression.

To be honest, I’d not seen abusive comments in any of the Consolidated papers, however I don’t subscribe to the Star so I’m not sure what they’re dealing with there. But I’m not surprised that smaller, more community-based papers are making the move first. As I found in while talking with others in April, many of the larger newspaper chains farm out their websites to a separate division. The decision-makers for AL.com, for instance, are in New Jersey where they also run NJ.com and Michigan Live and no telling how many other sites with the same infrastructure, architecture and rules.

It makes me think even more the future of journalism is in hyper-local. The big chains have the economies of scale, but those economies of scale don’t matter as much when you’re renting pixels instead of buying ink and pulp for the enterprise. Small means nimble, and nimble means making the moves that matter to the people you’re near. At the very least, this is a signal the smaller outfits will reassert the mantle of innovation.

Your turn

What do you think about the change? Is it a harbinger of something else? (Your email address will remain confidential.)

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Comments

  1. Personally, I think this is a huge step forward in transparency. If sites like AL.com were to institute this policy I feel we’d see a big difference in the commenter’s posts there. Either that or the trolls and astro-turfers would all go out and register dummy domains just for those purposes.

  2. I don’t understand why it has taken Main stream media so long to insists that commenter’s stand behind what they say, makes great sense to me. Anonymity fostered a bunch of extremists who did not want anyone to know who they were, echoes of the KKK.

  3. I’ve often challenged those who advocate abolishing anonymous commenting to deliver a way to verify users’ true identities. Showing e-mail addresses may be a step in the right direction.
    However, if Consolidated Publishing didn’t give users fair warning that they’d reveal personal e-mail addresses, I believe that company is on shaky ethical ground. Some people will have no problem revealing their e-mail address; others may want to keep it private for any number of reasons.
    Marketing spammers will love this new policy, giving them access to thousands of legitimate e-mail addresses.
    (Looking at the St. Clair site, I’m seeing only user names, no e-mail addresses.)

    • Wade, I checked that. Previous comments are still by username, and making the policy retroactive would be a huge breach, to be sure.

      I’m not sure what sorts of warnings users are getting as they leave new comments. If it’s prominent enough there (and not just tucked away as this announcement) then I am okay with the way they are communicating it.

  4. Ike – You’re right that smaller, local media can be faster to adopt changes such as this. As they want more feedback from readers, with some control of the conversation, this may be a way to stop some of the trolls and nonsense. Which is probably what much of their audience wants. It’s good to see a media outlet asserting their position on this.

    Wade’s point about marketing spammers is valid, but it has a similar solution to trolls who want a work around for this policy: junk email account. Can’t someone post with a valid but otherwise anonymous email address like [email protected] and keep right on trolling? IDK if that’s something they’ve considered, along with blocking IPs (and when does it get too strict, too censored?).

    Anyway this is my real name, real comment 😉 Thanks for sharing.

  5. Wow – showing emails? Wow. I completely and totally agree that the anonymous pond scum comments majorly stink! But I can never see myself leaving my email out in the open like that. Eeks! (I live in the area, too.)

  6. Intriguing concept since it creates the possibility of direct dialogue between individuals, facilitated by the connection through the newspaper.
    I share Wade’s concern about exposing email addresses without notifying them in advance. Most personal info forms associated with comment fields say specifically that you WON’T reveal the email address. If they just deleted that line and left the same form people were used to filling out, that’s a sneaky way of changing the policy. It needed to be done with advance notice.
    This doesn’t have to be handled through direct exposure of the personal email address. They can create a feedback form to enable someone to send through a dummy account–similar to what Craigslist does–which still serves the function of making someone directly accessible and therefore (perhaps) accountable).
    Trolls and jerks will still be trolls and jerks utilizing dummy accounts, as Davina notes. The Web just makes it possible to be human in front of the whole world.
    @BarbChamberlain

    • Thanks Barb…

      I don’t think this was done in an underhanded way. I stumbled across the announcement itself, done in advance of the change.

      The Craigslist-proxy idea has merit, but it still doesn’t tell you much about the people who are there. They might be astroturfers, might not.

      Also — if someone used the newspaper-proxy email address to harass someone else, would that not open the newspaper to liability, as a third-party delivery mechanism for that threat?

      A lot of issues to sort through, no matter the solution.

  7. I noticed when the Las Vegas Sun started requiring a Facebook login, the comments veered away slightly from the snarling snarkiness that had been the usual tone. What I didn’t expect is that there would be people there with their pictures and identity proving that they had never finished 6th grade English/Grammar classes. The endless spelling errors wanted me to jump in and edit!
    However, even after a few weeks the trolls were back lashing out at dead people who had either been a victim or had an accident. I suppose if I could email that person right away, it might lead to all sorts of hate letters between people. Good thing Google hands out gmail accounts like candy. <G>

  8. I’ve heard the flip side of killing anonymity, and there is some meat to this argument. The idea is that even though there are anonymous contributors to a conversation, it is still a conversation. And to tell folks they can’t spew opinions (barring profanities, etc) without their name attached is another way of regulating or limiting the dialogue. Granted, some anonymous posts wouldn’t come anywhere near “dialogue”, but would they post at all otherwise?

  9. Sounds like a goldmine for spammers, basically forcing folks to make a spam-address….kind of like I already do for my blog.

  10. The Buffalo News announced a similar change in policy toward anonymous comments last week. They’re going much further, though, and requiring commenters to give a real name and phone number, and the staff will then verify the person’s identity.
    This topic is interesting from several perspectives. First, instituting something like Facebook Connect seems like it’s an easier and less labor-intensive way to link real people to comments. Displaying an email address seems more intrusive (I’m assuming they will render them as images or otherwise prevent them from being scraped?). In both cases, if someone really wants to flame, it’s easy enough to create an anonymous email address or a fake Facebook profile. The Buffalo News approach gets around that, but creates an inordinate amount of verification work for what is surely an already understaffed news organization.
    A third option is more strict comment moderation. Newspapers have always seemed hesitant to just delete comments that are outright offensive or off-topic, I guess in the name of providing an open forum and free speech. But being so open has allowed a hostile culture to thrive online, and it’s hard to put Pandora back in the box. There’s a local blog in Albany that started a few years ago, and from the get go they were very strict with comment moderation and got rid of comments that were rude, nasty, etc. As a result, the discussion on that blog is civil and diverse and the community essentially polices itself – trolls and flamers can almost inherently understand that there commentary is not welcome there.
    This issue of nasty comments is also tied to the whole idea of pageview journalism. If newspapers are selling ads to their online site on a CPM basis, and an article with 3,000 comments full of vitriol makes for an interesting sideshow and drives pageviews, then do they really have an incentive to turn it off?
    Lots of food for thought here.
    @amymengel

  11. The Buffalo News verification system is what our local daily, the Spokesman-Review, requires for letters to the editor before publishing them. What a lot of work for blog comments though!
     
    @BarbChamberlain

Trackbacks

  1. Ike Pigott says:

    Newspapers break the mask of anonymity, comment policies changed | http://ike4.me/o107

  2. Ike Pigott says:

    Are newspapers starting to get smart about anonymous comments? | http://ike4.me/o107

  3. RT @ikepigott: Are newspapers starting to get smart about anonymous comments? | http://ike4.me/o107

  4. Ike Pigott says:

    @jayrosen_nyu – New comment policies for newspapers | http://ike4.me/o107

  5. RT @ikepigott: Newspapers Break the Mask of Anonymity http://bit.ly/d1EnHx

  6. Hey @Kansasdotcom tweeps! I LOVE this idea. Let's put the civil back in our discourse. http://tinyurl.com/2dbmwfd (via @ikepiggott)

  7. Scott Wilson says:

    RT @ikepigott: Newspapers break the mask of anonymity, comment policies changed | http://ike4.me/o107 | Hurray for transparency!

  8. RT @AndreaAnglin Hey @Kansasdotcom tweeps! I LOVE this idea. Let's put the civil back in our discourse. http://tinyurl.com/2dbmwfd

  9. Tanya Ott says:

    Alabama newspaper breaks the mask of anonymity http://wbhm.us/4a

  10. Kris says:

    Hey @timlennox, just what you've been asking for! RT @tanyaott1: Alabama newspapers break the mask of anonymity http://wbhm.us/4a

  11. RT @AndreaAnglin Hey @Kansasdotcom tweeps! I LOVE this idea. Let's put the civil back in our discourse. http://tinyurl.com/2dbmwfd

  12. RT @ikepigott: Newspapers break the mask of anonymity, comment policies changed http://ike4.me/o107

  13. Ike Pigott says:

    Newspapers ban anonymous comments | http://ike4.me/o107

  14. RT @wordymouth RT @ikepigott: Newspapers break the mask of anonymity, comment policies changed http://ike4.me/o107

  15. COMMENTING TRANSPARENCY | Newspapers Break the Mask of Anonymity http://ike4.me/o107 | cc: @WVGazette @CharleyWest | (thx @rachelakay)

  16. Bill Handy says:

    RT @ikepigott: Newspapers Break the Mask of Anonymity http://bit.ly/d1EnHx

  17. Newspapers Break the Mask of Anonymity – editorial boards rethink policies in social media age http://fb.me/v3WdiNyy

  18. Ike Pigott says:

    Is this newspaper chain making the right move about anonymous comments? | http://ike4.me/o107

  19. RT @ikepigott: Is this newspaper chain making the right move about anonymous comments? | http://ike4.me/o107

  20. Wade Kwon says:

    Newspapers break the mask of anonymity, comment policies changed, by @ikepigott: http://ike4.me/o107

  21. Magnetsfast says:

    Newspapers Break the Mask of Anonymity http://bit.ly/aRYzvj (via @ikepigott)

  22. Newspapers Break the Mask of Anonymity http://ff.im/-n0etU

  23. Jason Falls says:

    I knew newspapers would come around on anonymous comments. Didn't think it'd be in the South, though. From @ikepigott: http://ar.gy/nz

  24. mstory123 says:

    RT @JasonFalls: I knew newspapers would come around on anonymous comments. Didn't think it'd be in the South, though. From @ikepigott: http://ar.gy/nz

  25. Ike Pigott says:

    @jenzings – Congrats to CNN, for only being three weeks behind me. 😉 http://ike4.me/o107