Sun Journal
The editor of the Lewiston (Maine) Sun Journal announced Wednesday the paper would require the use of real names by commenters on the paper's website beginning in February.

In announcing the policy change, Rex Rhodes wrote that standing behind your words is a "core principle of journalism" that has been ignored by newspapers when it came to online reader comments. But, he said, "We have deviated from that principle for the Web, believing for several years that 'online' was somehow different than 'in print.' Nearly all newspapers have."

According to the paper's website, commenters will need to create new online accounts using their real names and hometown, much like a letter to the editor. Reader identities will be verified with a phone call or by matching information with the paper's subscription records.

Most Web publishers have several goals for online comments. They hope to develop a community, engage the audience in conversation, bring added value to stories, and increase page views. As journalists we also hope to create productive discussions, serve the public good, and uphold the standards and reputation of our organizations.

That makes the choice to allow -- or prohibit -- anonymous comments an ethical decision as well as a business decision. And it's one that should be made with digital goals, not print traditions, in mind.

Letters to the editor occupy scarce space in print and carry legal liability for the publisher. Reader comments occupy almost unlimited pixels online and, for the most part, little liability for the host. The two forms exist in different legal, cultural and economic contexts.

That is not to say requiring real names is wrong. In some cases, even removing comments for a time would be preferable to allowing a community to disintegrate into vitriol.

But new tools and strategies are developed each day that can mitigate the challenges of online community moderation. To repeat a few points I made in October:

  • The community needs to be engaged, and moderators need to be present, visible and involved.
  • A “real identity” mandate might seem like a solution, but requiring a ”persistent identity” connected to a verified e-mail account may be just as effective.
  • Technology is our friend, and advanced moderation tools, such as blacklists and reputation ratings, are helpful.
  • Given the right tools and support, the community will often do a reasonable job moderating itself.