Some editors were sitting in a news meeting one morning not long ago, bemoaning the often outrageous, intolerant and hateful online "comments" attached to stories on The News Web site, when News Business Editor Grove Potter uttered a simple but eloquent truth:
"Let's face it," he said. "We've created a class of anonymous flamethrowers."
He's right. We have. And shortly, we're about to change that dramatically.
Online commenting began, a year or so ago, as a way to engage our Web readers and give them a chance to air their points of view and get some discussion going on the topics of the day.
Quickly, though, the practice degenerated into something significantly less lofty. Particularly on stories about inner-city crime -- but not only on those stories -- reader comments can be racist and ugly. In fact, we've been shocked at how seemingly routine stories can elicit comments that veer off into offensive territory.
One local reader, Bob Gallivan, wrote to me about it recently.
"What is intended to be an open forum for individuals' thoughts and opinions is all too often the outlet for small-minded, omniphobic hatemongers, racists and just plain mean-spirited people," he said.
Media organizations all over the country, particularly newspapers with active Web sites, are struggling with this subject. There's no easy answer. The tension is between wanting to take advantage of the freewheeling expression of the Internet and wanting to keep standards of reasonable tolerance and decency on a public site.
After quite a bit of internal discussion, The News -- in the next few weeks -- will make a significant change. We will require commenters to give their real names and the names of their towns, which will appear with their comments, just as they do in printed "letters to the editor," which have appeared daily for many years on the newspaper's op-ed page.
It will mean that Web site readers must fill out an online form and include a phone number that we will use to help verify that they are who they say they are. It won't be foolproof, and it will be somewhat labor-intensive for us, but we think it will raise the level of the discussion.
"We hope to raise the level of discourse by providing a measure of accountability," said News Online Editor Brian Connolly.
The change arises, in part, after other methods have failed. The commenting was set up with certain restraints built in. One was self-policing -- if a number of readers flagged a comment as unacceptable, it would be taken down. Another was monitoring by editors here, though the high volume of comments on dozens of stories a day made that impractical.
In some recent cases -- for example, the celebrated Batavia arrest for adulterous sex on a picnic table -- we've taken the more extreme measure of not offering commenting at all on stories that seemed most likely to descend into the gutter.
But, despite these precautions, trouble crept in anyway, like Peter Rabbit squeezing under the farmer's fence. We have felt for some time that The News' reputation for fairness and good taste was being damaged.
Clearly, it's time to do something about it.
The changeover to the use of real names and locations will happen around Aug. 1. Before that, we'll give our Web readers plenty of notice about how to comply with the new procedures.
The aim of publishing reader comments, all along, has been to have a free-flowing discussion of stimulating and worthwhile ideas -- something of a virtual village square.
Now that people's names will be attached to their ideas, we're hoping that aim, finally, will be achieved.