Online order: 'WWW' no longer the wild, wild West

We would be surprised if many of our readers were aware that the highly regarded U.S. magazine National Journal has recently shifted to a “members only” policy for online comments, saying it wasn’t worth the resources to police the trash talk and hate-filled comments regularly being posted on its website.

The National Journal is just the latest in a series of major, respected publications to retreat under onslaught of “virtual vitriol.”

For example, as The Washington Post reports, McClatchy Co. newspapers (titles include the Miami Herald, Kansas City Star and Charlotte Observer, making McClatchy one of the world’s largest newspaper publishers) now require commenters to register through their Facebook accounts.

Others have abandoned online comments altogether. The brand-new Vox.com news site, which made headlines for poaching several prominent young Washington Post staffers, launched in April — without a comments feature. The venerable Popular Science magazine (published since 1872) has simply waved the white flag and abandoned its comments section.

Opposite this editorial we have printed a column by John McClelland of the Association of Opinion Journalists, a professional group for editorial writers. We generally agree with the sentiments Mr. McClelland expresses on the topic:

“A private organization restoring order on its own website is not censorship. Now, if Big Brother or Uncle Sam (or such ilk as China or the EU) cuts you off, that is.”

After Pinnacle Media acquired the Compass and parent company Cayman Free Press last year, one of our first policy changes was to discontinue the practice of publishing anonymous commentary on both our website and in the Letters to the Editor section of the Compass.

We did so with full appreciation of our responsibility to make space available for opinions opposing (or supporting) our editorial positions or simply for contributors who wish to make their views known on the news of the day.

However, as responsible publishers, we will not allow our media outlets to be used when the intent of the writer is to promulgate hate, inflict hurt, disseminate knowingly inaccurate information, or just make childish wisecracks.

With that in mind, the Compass now requires commenters to register their full names and contact information, and we regularly do additional due diligence, contacting them to be certain they are the authors of the words we are about to attribute to them.

Although initially we did hear some protests, especially from those who confuse the right to free speech with the right to anonymous comment, on the whole we believe readers’ discourse on our site has improved dramatically in terms of thoughtfulness, quality and responsibility.

Because of this increase in worthiness, we have begun to publish more online comments in our print newspaper and expect that trend to continue.

When the Compass publishes something — in print or online, written by a staffer, contributor or reader — we take ownership of that content and thus have responsibility for it. This is not just a matter of ethics but law.

If we publish a libelous comment, we are every bit as liable as the author of the comment, whether it’s anonymous, pseudonymous or bylined.

For the record, the members of this editorial board, and joint authors of the opinions that appear in this editorial space, are Compass Publisher David R. Legge and editorial writer Patrick Brendel.

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