Editor's Notebook: Thanks for putting your name on the line

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With journalism’s relatively recent emphasis on digital delivery and the 24/7 news cycle, newspaper editors everywhere seem to be debating, studying and furrowing their brows over what to do about anonymous reader comments.

In a perfect world, online comments would be concise, civil and always on topic. But in the real world, they’re often offensive, self-indulgent and meandering. And sometimes they’re just spam.

Editors typically have responded by admonishing posters who violate the rules, censoring repeat offenders and putting up technical barriers to block spammers. Some news organizations require posters to register before they can contribute to discussions. Others review every comment prior to publication. Some have eliminated comments altogether. And some stoke the flames by allowing all-out anonymous commentary without referees.

At theforecaster.net, where our online audience generally tends not to participate in scorched-earth commentary, we’ve taken a middle ground. We require posters to register on the site and we keep an eye on the comments after they are posted. We rely on our readers to police themselves and we only remove comments that are profane, libelous or poorly disguised advertisements. We believe in and encourage the open exchange of ideas and opinions, and recognize that publishing on the Web is not the same as publishing in print.

But while the Internet provides unlimited space and easy access, print has restrictions – there’s a finite amount of space in each edition. Website contributors can generally post to their hearts’ content, as frequently as they like and under either their real names or psuedonyms; letter-writers must meet a weekly deadline (noon Monday), provide their names (which we publish) and full addresses and phone numbers (which we don’t), keep their opinions under 250 words and consent to editing. They’re also limited to one letter a month to keep the most zealous contributors from dominating the Opinion pages.

Because of those distinctions – in particular the requirement that letters be signed – print letters are perhaps seen as more legitimate, and more credible, than anonymous online comments.

But as journalism professor Bill Reader of Ohio University pointed out in June at the annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, and more recently in the American Journalism Review, so-called “must-sign” letters policies became widespread only in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Anonymity isn’t anathema to American democracy; in fact, anonymous speech is exactly what the framers of the First Amendment had in mind,” Reader says. “On a philosophical level, anonymity allowed opinions to be considered on their own merits, without regard for who was stating them; on a practical level, it gave people a way to disagree with leaders without getting beaten and/or thrown in jail.”

Today, Reader argues, anonymity is the “one true cultural equalizer” that gives voice to the voiceless – particularly whistleblowers, women, non-whites, the poor and young adults who more often choose to be silent in the face of  “must-sign” policies.

There may be a trade-off with credibility, but I, too, believe anonymity is an equalizer that makes it worth enduring the occasional website spam or rambling, off-topic online comment. And I’m intrigued by the impact anonymity could have on our print editions, too.

Does this mean The Forecaster is considering publishing anonymous letters in print? Not right away – although I’m waiting to hear from my colleagues Tim and Jeremy Waltner at the Freeman (S.D.) Courier, who for the past half year have been testing a policy that allows letter writers to request that their names be withheld. Every letter to the Courier must still be signed (so that the editors can verify the identity of the writers) and meet other editorial standards, but the Waltners are hoping the availability of public anonymity will stimulate their letters pages and make their newspaper – and their community – better by promoting a more vigorous exchange of ideas.

Should The Forecaster follow the South Dakota example? Let me know what you think.

In the meantime, with the new year approaching, I’d like to thank all of the readers who this year have followed the rules, met the deadlines, adhered to the word limits, and most of all, put their names and opinions out there for everyone to read:

Susan Adams, South Portland

Mrs. Allen’s Class, Freeport

Jane Anderson, Cape Elizabeth

Cushman D. Anthony, North Yarmouth

Matt Arrants, Falmouth

Penny Asherman, Cumberland

Debbie Atwood, Brunswick

Newell Augur, Brunswick

Paul W. Austin, Scarborough

Dr. Alan Avtges, Cumberland

Kathleen Babeu, Cumberland

Mary Bakke, North Yarmouth

Robert Baizley, Scarborough

Mr. & Mrs. Philip M. Baker, Falmouth

Sally Bancroft, Cumberland

Leanne Bard, Falmouth

Craig Barnes, Woolwich

Dana Bateman, Brunswick

Randall J. Bates, Yarmouth

Vickie C. Bell, Cumberland

Patricia Berg, Falmouth

Holly Bernstein, Falmouth

Judy Berghuis, Yarmouth

Rep. Seth Berry, Bowdoinham

Susan Bisbing, Cumberland

Eliav Bitan, Falmouth

Susan Blackburn, Cumberland

Dorothy Blanchette, Falmouth

Julie Blodgett, Falmouth

Larry Bliss, South Portland

Dick Boardman, Scarborough

Dorothy A. Bowe, Portland

Chase Boyd, Falmouth

John Boylston, Dresden

John Brautigam, Falmouth

Gayle A. Brazeau, Portland

Cathy Breen, Falmouth

Steven Brinn & Jody Sataloff, Cape Elizabeth

Dolores Broberg, South Portland

Pope Brock, Falmouth

Shari Broder, Freeport

Jeff Brown, North Yarmouth

Marie C. Brown, Falmouth

Patricia M. Brown, Yarmouth

Felice Bryan, Falmouth

Tim & Lisa Bryant, Falmouth

Catherine Buotte, Bath

Brad Burns, Falmouth

Pat Buttner, Scarborough

Ralph Cabana, South Portland

Zoo Cain, South Portland

Ben Campo, North Yarmouth

Mark Carignan, Bath

Lalla Carothers, Cumberland

Peter & Janine B. Cary, Cape Elizabeth

Beppie Cerf, Falmouth

Marsha Clark, Falmouth

Andy Charles, South Portland

Fred Chase, Falmouth

Lisa Chase, South Portland

Ron Chase, Topsham

Ellen Clancy, South Portland

Chad Coffin, Freeport

Linda Collins, Cumberland

Deirdre Conroy-Vella, Falmouth

Janice Cooper, Yarmouth

Kerry Corthell, Scarborough

Kim Corthell, Scarborough

Linda Cote, Falmouth

Richard Couch, Falmouth

Joseph Couture, Ipswich, Mass.

Jonathan Crimmins, Brunswick

Gary Crosby, South Portland

Joseph R. Crosby, Cumberland

Jonathan Culley, Falmouth

Dick Curran, Falmouth

Stuart & Vickie Curran, Cumberland

Bob Dale, Brunswick

Roger Dammer, Freeport

Marian Day, Cumberland

Rosemarie De Angelis, South Portland

Constance Dayton, Falmouth

Ralph Dean, Freeport

Cindy, Mark & Scott Delano, Scarborough

Lou Demers, Portland

Marge Merrill Devine, Falmouth

Barbara DiBiase, Falmouth

Mike DiCenso, Lincoln

Albert A. DiMillo Jr., South Portland

Nancy A. Dix & Stephen P. Thomas, Cumberland

Margaret Donahue, South Portland

William Downes, Cape Elizabeth

Michael Doyle, Falmouth

Seth Dussault, Portland

Rep. Jane Eberle, South Portland

Sam Eddy, Yarmouth

Allen Evans, Falmouth

Rep. Mark Eves, North Berwick

Kevin Fallen, South Portland

Richard R. Farnsworth, Portland

Katie Fellows, Scarborough

Annie Finch, Falmouth

Mayer S. Fistal, Falmouth

Capt. Will A. Fitzgerald, Brunswick

Pauline Flemmings, Phippsburg

Mike Fletcher, South Portland

George A. Fogg, North Yarmouth

Tom Foley, Cumberland

Michael Foley, Westbrook

Jill Fox, Falmouth

Gary C. Foster, Gray

Beth Franklin, Falmouth

Celine T. Frueh, Falmouth

Richard Frost, Falmouth

Sharon Fuerst, Yarmouth

Vincent E. Furey, Jr., Falmouth

Rudy Gabrielson, Yarmouth

Whit & Jane Gallagher, Yarmouth

Bill Gardiner, Falmouth

Jennifer Gardiner, Falmouth

Anne. B. Gass, Gray

John Gerken, Yarmouth

Heather Giandrea, North Yarmouth

Alexandra Gildart, South Portland

Jane Gildart, Yarmouth

Gordon A. Glover, South Freeport

Caroline Goggin, Falmouth

Robert Goldman, South Portland

Andrea Goodrich, Pownal

Jerry Gordon, Portland

Betts Gorsky, Cumberland

Jill Gorneau, South Portland

Anne Graham, North Yarmouth

Mary Graham, Woolwich

Lew Graves, Brunswick

Randy Greason, Windham

Bruce Green, Brunswick

Marji Greenhut, Brunswick

Jean & John Gulliver, Falmouth

Tex Haeuser, South Portland

Darla Hamlin, Falmouth

Ronald A. Hamlin, North Yarmouth

Bethany Hanley, Cumberland

Turner Hansel, North Yarmouth

Chalmers Hardenbergh, Yarmouth

Ronald A. Hart, Falmouth

Charly Haversat, Freeport

Nicole Hawkes, Vineyard Haven, Mass.

Dr. Samir & Marisa Haydar, Cape Elizabeth

Kathy Hayden, Falmouth

Samuel Henderson, Portland

Patricia Hendrickson, Topsham

Ralph Hendrix, Scarborough

Bob Heyner, Cumberland

Emily Hilburn, Falmouth

Daniel Hildreth, Falmouth

John A. Hobson, Falmouth

Dan Hogan, South Portland

Judith Hopkins, Pownal

Fred Horch, Brunswick

Diane Howe, Falmouth

Fred Howe, Falmouth

Al & Lois Howlett, Yarmouth

John W. Hoy, Freeport

Sherry Huber, Falmouth

Thomas J. Hudak, Freeport

Jim Hughes, South Portland

M. Roberts Hunt, Falmouth

Alison Jacoby, South Portland

Marty Jensen, Cumberland

Regan Johnson, South Portland

Doug Jones, South Portland

Michel Joncas, Portland

Erin O. Jones, South Portland

George O. Jones Jr., South Portland

Grace C. Jones, Bath

Martin Jones, Freeport

Barbara Keefe, Falmouth

Chris Keiter, South Portland

Justin Keleher, Bowdoin

Thomas H. Kelley, Freeport

Arne Klepinger, Yarmouth

Hannah Klepinger, Yarmouth

Claudia King, Falmouth

Ned Kitchel, Falmouth

Karen Klatt, Brunswick

Kurt & Elizabeth Klebe, Falmouth

Pete Kledaras, Falmouth

Paul Knoll, Yarmouth

Daniel M. Knowles, Falmouth

Ted Koffman, Falmouth

Keith Kreisher, Yarmouth

Kermit Krueger, Evergreen Park, Ill.

Muriel Kruppa, South Portland

Howard Kunin & Annie Dunne, South Portland

Victoria M. Kurtz, Yarmouth

Mary Lancey, South Portland

Jana Lapoint, Falmouth

Analiese Larson, Falmouth

Martha Leggat, North Yarmouth

Lois Lengyel, Falmouth

Charles F. Leveroni, Falmouth

Steven H. Levesque, Brunswick

Connie Lewis, Harpswell

Bob Lezer, Freeport

Dave Libby, Falmouth

Karen Libby, Cumberland Center

Nancy Lightbody, Falmouth

Kelly L’Heureux, Falmouth

Nancy Lord, Brunswick

Robert M. Lord, South Portland

Kay Loring, South Portland

Henry Loughlin, Freeport

Jim & Pam Lowell, Falmouth

Nancy Lund, Falmouth

Julie MacDonald, Falmouth

Bruce Macmaster, Falmouth

James H. Maier, Scarborough

Patricia Maloney, Topsham

Martha Marshall, Falmouth

Jeff Marstaller, North Yarmouth

Jeff Martin, Portland

Michael K. Martin, Cumberland

Andrew T. Mason, Topsham

Russ Mathews, Falmouth

Sally Maynard, Cumberland Foreside

Jenn & Tom McAdoo, Cumberland

Ed McCartan, Brunswick

Melissa McCrea, Pownal

Lawrence McDonald, South Portland

Peggy McGehee, Falmouth

Peter McGrail, Yarmouth

Robert McIntyre, Harpswell

Darren McLellan, Cape Elizabeth

Bill McMahon, Falmouth

Denise McSorley, Scarborough

David Melville, Portland

Mrs. Merrifield’s Fourth Grade Class, Falmouth

Lincoln J. Merrill Jr., North Yarmouth

Steve Mittl, Freeport

Merridith, Todd, James, Erin & Quinn Molloy, Cumberland

Peter Monro, Portland

Joanne Moore, Brunswick

Peter G. Moore, Falmouth

Margi Moran, Yarmouth

Jeffrey Alan Morse, Brunswick

Katie A. Murphy, North Yarmouth

Carolyn Murray, Cumberland

David R. Murray, Falmouth

Christopher Murry Jr., Falmouth

Jane Neitzel, Falmouth

Edward Palm, Bath

Mary P. Nelson, Falmouth

Dr. Nicholas M. Nelson, Topsham

Miriam Nesset, Falmouth

Gloria Nicholson, North Yarmouth

Kate Norfleet, Scarborough

Joe O’Donnell, Falmouth

Ryan O’Connor, Brunswick

Richard O’Leary, Falmouth

Frank Parker, Freeport

Dr. Karen L. Olson, Cumberland

Richard Olson, Falmouth

Chris Orestis, Falmouth

Jordan Ossie, Portland

Timothy Ouellette, Scarborough

Frank Parker, Freeport

Rachel Parsons, Gray

Tony Payne, Falmouth

Marc Payne, Freedom

George Pavloff, South Portland

Carrie Penrose, Falmouth

Sara Perfetti, Cumberland

Dave Perkins, North Yarmouth

Jacquelyn A. Perry, Scarborough

Kent Peterson, Yarmouth

Jeffrey Piampiano, Brunswick

Alex Piper, Freeport

Louise Poppema, Cumberland

Barbara Powers, Falmouth

Lisa J. Preney, Falmouth

James B. Price, South Portland

Becky Pride, Falmouth

Mary Lou Prieto, Falmouth

Leora Rabin, Yarmouth

Dr. John Radebaugh, Falmouth

Janet Rathbun, Portland

Mel Read, Yarmouth

Nancy & Frank Read, Cumberland

Gary Reed, Falmouth

Rod Regier, Freeport

John Rensenbrink, Topsham

Todd Reynolds, North Yarmouth

Mark Richard, Falmouth

Sybil Riemensnider, South Portland

Dolores Rimkunas, Falmouth

Dawn Roberts, South Portland

Bonny Rodden, Falmouth

Bob Roffler, North Yarmouth

Ines Rogachevsky, South Portland

Jen Rohde, Cumberland

S. Wyatt Ross, South Portland

Jacqueline Rouda, Yarmouth

Nancy Rowe, Boston

Judy Roy, Scarborough

John Russell, Portland

John W. Russell, Old Orchard Beach

Ken & Barb Ryder, Freeport

Ann W. Sanborn, Falmouth

Lisa Sanford, Yarmouth

Joy Schaeffer, Brunswick

Pem Schaeffer, Brunswick

John A. Scully, Scarborough

Peter Senger, Yarmouth

Tom Shepard, Cumberland

Becky Shepherd, Brunswick

Suzanne Sherwood, Wiscasset

Judy Shirk, Scarborough

Leigh Silver, South Portland

Winnie Silverman, Brunswick

Kate Silvers, Cumberland

Peter Simmons, Brunswick

Heather Sirocki, Scarborough

Ted Sirois, Saco

Rabbi Harry Z. Sky, Falmouth

William H. Slavick, Portland

Gregory Smith, Cumberland

Harry Smith, Cape Elizabeth

Joe Smith, Yarmouth

Dave Snow, Falmouth

Leo Soucek, Topsham

Susan Spagnola, Cape Elizabeth

Aaron Splint, Falmouth

Rose Splint, Falmouth

Peter Stanton, South Portland

Mary Stowell, Falmouth

Svend Strandbygaard, Falmouth

The Rev. Frank C. Strasburger, Brunswick

Lynda L. Sudlow, Falmouth

Emily Swan, Brunswick

Teresa Swinbourne, South Portland

Anthony Taylor, Buxton

Catherine Taylor, South Portland

Mark Terison, Falmouth

Anne Theriault, Falmouth

James Thibodeau, Falmouth

Karin Tilberg, Augusta

Jeff Toorish, North Yarmouth

Kathleen Traynor, Falmouth

David Treadwell, Brunswick

Carolyn Treat, Portland

Nancy Triggiani-Musco, Freeport

Chris Trout, South Portland

Julie Tupper, South Portland

Brian Undlin, Scarborough

Ted & Delores Vail, Falmouth

Faith Varney, Falmouth

Patrick Venne, Portland

Dr. John O. Vogt, Falmouth

Amy Volk, Scarborough

Chantal Walker, Falmouth

Stephen Walker, Falmouth

Jim Walsh, Cape Elizabeth

Jill Ward, South Portland

Dan Warner, Brunswick

Wayne Webster, North Yarmouth

Carole O. Welch, Falmouth

Ben Weigel, Falmouth

Jeff Weinstein, Yarmouth

John H. Whatley, Topsham

Lin White, Pownal

Rachel Horton White, Portland

Bruce Wildes, Cumberland

Irving Williams, South Portland

Betty & George Willhoite, Falmouth

Diane Winn, Freedom

Amy Winton, Falmouth

Doug Wodhams, Holland Landing, Ont., Canada

Laurie Wood, North Yarmouth

Mike Wood, Scarborough

Rita Yavinsky, Cumberland

Dennis Yesse, South Portland

Jay York, Portland

Andy Young, Cumberland

Sidebar Elements

Mo Mehlsak is editor of The Forecaster. He can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 107 or mmehlsak@theforecaster.net. You can also follow Mo @mmehlsak on Twitter.

Editor of The Forecaster; prior reporting/editing gigs at Automotive Age magazine, Daily News of Los Angeles, Biddeford Journal Tribune; Syracuse U. Orange-bleeder; lifelong NY Yankees fan, longtime resident of Red Sox Nation.