Got something to say? Then say it!

The skill set for managing an online community lies somewhere between carnival barker and drill sergeant. You’ve get the crowd’s attention, draw ’em in… then train them and keep them in line once they’ve enlisted.

The job becomes even tougher for journalists, who want to draw traffic and elicit discussion while maintaining journalism fundamentals. It’s easier to open the doors for an anonymous shouting match than it is to craft a well-sourced and enlightening conversation.

Although we at journalism schools teach our students to write in an engaging and conversational manner, journalism is not casual conversation. The work we do to report and source our information tends to lend our words a formality beyond that offered by someone pulling their words from “thin air.” Ideally, we minimize that sense of formality in an effort to earn credibility for our work without intimidating the reader.

In addition, a reporter’s job, ideally, is to answer questions. If you’ve worked in a newsroom, think back to your first editor, or your basic reporting professor. When he or she told you to check out a lead, what would have been the reaction if you’d responded, “Uh, I don’t know”?

1) “Oh, gee, that’s okay.”
2) “Well, find the heck out!”

Journalists are trained from their first day on the job to find answers. That makes it hard for reporters to turn to their readers publicly and declare, “I don’t know. Help me out here.”

All these factors stand in the way of journalists running vibrant online discussion communities, even as our reporting skills and community know-how make us ideal candidates for those gigs.

We’ve offered dozens of articles on OJR over the years with advice on managing online discussion communities. And, as editor, I’ve tried to ensure that we’ve practiced much of what we’ve preached. Which is why I’m here to explain today a change we are making in the way that we are handling comments on the website.

Since I rewrote OJR’s content management system in the fall of 2004, OJR has required that readers register with the website in order to post a comment on the site. Our registration process is two-step, and requires registrants to retrieve a password from their e-mail accounts in order to log into the site.

In my experience, this system offers the best protection against spam bots and flame war trolls. The registration requirement keeps automated agents from exploiting input forms and the e-mail requirement deters anonymous hacks who want to cause trouble without consequence.

It’s not a perfect system; some spammers employ sweatshop labor to manually labor and submit comments to highly-linked websites. And even those who proudly attach their name to their comments can be jerks sometime. (Do I get some Fifth Amendment opportunities here?)

But, on the whole, I’ve found that this system, employed on other websites, helps keep the signal-to-noise ratio quite high, with a minimum of effort from site editors and moderators.

Yet a high signal-to-noise ratio doesn’t help readers that much when that signal remains weak. And in the relatively small world of the news publishing industry, sometimes people do not want their names attached to comments about their company’s vision and practices (or lack thereof.)

So, today we’re implementing a change at OJR: Readers may now submit comments to the site without registering.

That doesn’t mean we’re opening the gates to anything. Comments submitted by unregistered readers will be held for review before being posted to the site. And those comments will be identified by the poster’s IP address, rather than a log-in or reader’s name. (Unregistered readers will be able to include their name within their posts to OJR if they choose, of course.)

I hope that this alternative provides a way to readers to get introduced to commenting on OJR without having to go through the extra steps of creating an account and retrieving an account password. And that it provides a way for newsroom employees to add to the conversation in situations where they fear reprisals if their names were attached to their comments.

Of course, as journalists those of us reading the site will have to decide how much credibility to give to posts that come from unregistered readers versus those submitted by readers who have registered and supplied OJR with a working e-mail address. (You will know the difference because posts from unregistered readers will include an unlinked IP address, rather than a linked author’s name. Hey, at least we’re not slapping on the label “anonymous coward“.)

Ideally, from my perspective as editor, folks will try commenting using the anonymous system, decide that they like it, then register and becoming frequently contributing registrants on the site.

Spend more than a few days on the Internet, and you’ll see the whole range of conditions that sites impose on posting: from wide-open input forms without captchas to locked-down systems that require credit-card-verified user accounts.

Ultimately, we want more conversation, and less lecturing, on the site, and I hope that this change will move us toward that goal. And, as with everything on OJR, we reserve the right to change our minds — to make commenting either more or less restrictive than we will have it now.

Wanna share your experiences/frustration/success in running an online discussion. Hit the button and talk to us. Even if you haven’t registered yet.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at