The Juneau Empire no longer allows anonymous online comments on its website.
The newspaper on Sunday removed all previous comments published at juneauempire.com. Now, real names are required to post remarks about articles and interact with other readers.
The Empire joins a growing number of media outlets in Alaska and nationwide that have ended anonymous comments or done away with commenting on their websites altogether.
Publisher Rustan Burton says the move is designed to promote civility and respect in the comments section.
“People felt like people were taking it too far online, that there wasn’t enough oversight, there wasn’t enough accountability, because these people could say whatever they wanted. It didn’t have to be backed up,” Burton said. “And it’s not hard to take a look at those comments, and you can see that there are people out there who don’t care about the conversation. They don’t care about the argument, or having a good discussion. They really want to just stir the pot.”
Burton says feedback has been mostly positive since the change was announced last week.
“The 17 people that really liked the online commenting without putting their names next to it were pretty upset about that,” he said. “Other people commented online that they were very happy about this. And everyone that I’ve spoken to in person has been very positive about it. They’ve just said, ‘Hey, it’s about time.'”
The Empire will only allow comments from subscribers. Last year the paper introduced an online paywall. The same website log-in that allows people to read articles will allow them to comment.
“We wanted to maintain control of the whole thing, and as we talked about it we realized that the Facebook option still didn’t give us the complete control we want,” Burton said. “Plus we were taking them away from our website, and we didn’t want that to happen. We wanted the conversation to stay on our website.”
Former print and broadcast reporter Brian O’Donoghue chairs the journalism department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He says systems that require people to attach their real names to online comments, whether it’s Facebook or something else, are desirable.
“It’s the same reason why we quote people by name in the paper – talk is cheap,” O’Donoghue said. “When it’s your identity by name backing that comment, then I think there’s a lot more reason to take it seriously and there’s also a civic value in discouraging just sort of bullying comments from folks that are masquerading behind concealed identities.”
The only issue O’Donoghue sees with news organizations using Facebook comments is that they tie themselves to the changing rules and privacy policies of Facebook itself.
He says the Empire’s decision to limit comments to subscribers may have the unintended consequence of limiting discourse.
“Traditionally, anybody could write a letter to the newspaper that did or did not subscribe to the newspaper,” said O’Donoghue. “Or perhaps read the newspaper at the public library, or borrowed a friends’ copy of the newspaper, or just wanted to express themselves on a topic of public interest to the community.”
The Juneau Empire is one of several media outlets in Alaska owned by Georgia-based Morris Communications. That includes the Peninsula Clarion in Kenai and the Homer News. Burton says the company is leaving it up to local papers to decide what to do about online comments.