Anxious to lift an outright ban on comments, The Attleboro (Mass.) Sun-Chronicle has begun requiring two things of online readers who want to leave their thoughts on stories: 99 cents and their real names.
The newspaper should expect much criticism from various quarters, but it's a fascinating experiment and a bold response to the endless trolling, vitriol and drivel that is enabled by anonymity in online forums.
Pay little attention to the 99 cents; it's not important here. The fee is a one-time payment designed not to generate revenue - this isn't about "saving newspapers" -- but to reliably enable identity verification at initial sign-up and whenever registered readers leave comments.
From the newspaper's story announcing the decision:
This change is being made, (publisher Oreste) D'Arconte said, in an attempt "to eliminate past excesses that included blatant disregard for our appropriateness guidelines, blind accusations and unsubstantiated allegations ... This is a necessary step, in my opinion, if The Sun Chronicle is going to continue to provide a forum for comments on our websites."
Comments had been suspended since April 12.
And here's what readers see when they attempt to leave a comment:
Welcome to the new sunchronicle.com comments section.
To encourage intelligent and meaningful conversation, all posters will be required to register their name, address, phone number, email and a legitimate credit card number as proof of who you are. Your credit card will be charged a one-time fee of 99 cents to activate the account. We will not retain payment information after the one-time transaction.
The poster's name as it appears on the credit card will automatically be attached to the poster's comments, as will the city/town and state of the community in which they live. You will sign in with your e-mail address and chosen password. When you post a comment, it will appear on our site like this -
Joe Smith Plainville, MA wrote on (date/time)
"Blah blah blah, blah blah blah."
Registrants understand that under existing state and federal laws they are legally responsible for any comments they post.
Please fill in the form below to continue your registration.
Reasonable people may disagree with publisher D'Arconte on whether this step is necessary. The benefits of allowing anonymous comments are well known and vigorously defended. But what's interesting is that this newspaper has weighed the pros and cons of anonymity and decided that the costs outweigh the benefits.
That seems perfectly reasonable to me, too. Let's see how the newspaper's readers respond.
(Disclaimer: The Attleboro Sun Chronicle is the newspaper of my youth. I delivered it as a child, was a high school friend of its current editor, and still read it whenever I visit my Dad. In a very real sense it contributed to my choice of career and it will always occupy a special place in my heart.)
(Update: Couple of things about the flood of comments below: This post has been linked to by The Drudge Report; make of that what you will. Also, I'm surprised -- stunned, actually -- by the high level of support being voiced for what The Sun Chronicle is doing; tells me that the paper is definitely on to something.)
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