Watchdog Blog

Herb Strentz: Des Moines Register Ends Anonymity for Online Posts

Posted at 4:57 pm, August 7th, 2011
Herb Strentz Mug

DES MOINES–The Des Moines Register will no longer allow people to post anonymous online comments about items published in the paper.

On Aug. 7, Julie Thompson, the paper’s digital editor, wrote that effective August 11th, “You will have to have a Facebook account to comment, which will eliminate use of anonymous screen names.”

For years, former leaders at the paper, including managing editors, a couple of highly regarded staff members and others have urged an end to the anonymous comments. Laura Hollingsworth, who became publisher in 2007, also has acknowledged she was troubled by the abuses anonymity allowed.

The anonymous comments were carried under the label of “story chat” and introduced by Carolyn Washburn, editor of the paper from September 2005 to January 2011. She defended the practice, in part, by saying it helped generate story tips for Register reporters.

Washburn left to become editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer and was succeeded at the Register by Rick Green, formerly of the Desert News in Palm Springs, Calif. (which also allowed anonymous comments).

While critics of the anonymity may feel a measure of satisfaction, a glance at early postings to Thompson’s article suggests the move did not sit well with those who enjoyed the anonymity of posting. Some ridiculed the change; others raised questions about the mechanics involved.

A year ago, Gil Cranberg, former editorial page editor of the Register and Tribune, expressed outrage in a Nieman Watchdog blog at vicious comments about a rape victim who had allowed herself to be identified in Register and TV news accounts of the crime.

Episodes like that led Bill Maurer, a former managing editor of the Des Moines Tribune and a co-ME of the Register, to badger Washburn almost on a weekly basis about offensive anonymous online postings. Maurer died last May, but not before enlisting three other former managing editors to join him in encouraging Washburn and then Green to end the practice.

On the Register’s staff, strong opposition to the policy was voiced by the paper’s chief investigative reporter, Clark Kauffman, and by columnist Rekha Basu.

Kauffman said the anonymity policy turned news sources — including minority group members and the vulnerable — into “human piñatas” whom anonymous posters flailed away at.

Basu reached some anonymous contributors and got an acknowledgement that often the person didn’t care much about the issue or article involved but just had fun irritating people. Basu got a concession from Washburn in December that to comment on Basu’s column, people would have to go the Facebook route and be identified. (I wrote about that and Kauffman’s concerns in a Nieman post last December.)

At an informal lunch in early June, Basu said her Facebook approach was working well and she hoped it would be expanded by the Register.

That appears to be what happened.

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