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John Irby

Editor of the Bismarck Tribune retires amid anonymous online backlash

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FARGO - Journalists have debated for years whether to allow anonymous comments online, but Bismarck Tribune Editor John Irby says it's a battle he's not going to fight anymore.

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"I am retiring because I am tired of being the whipping boy," Irby wrote in a candid final column in Sunday's Tribune. "My skin has thinned. Life is too short to put up with all the noise."

Today is Irby's last after more than four years with the Tribune and 40 years in journalism.

But in his departure, his Sunday column reignited the ongoing discussion of online decorum and what role newspapers have - if any - in moderating it.

"When people don't have to sign their names to their words, they become more careless," Irby said Thursday. "The discourse is not as civil as it once was, particularly because of anonymous comments."

Newspaper websites of all sizes have experimented with ideas to keep discussions civil in the virtual world.

Some have no qualms with anonymity, while others require readers to identify themselves.

In 2010, Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum, removed online comments from its newspapers' websites altogether, instead shifting the comment feeds to the "Topics" section of its AreaVoices website.

But that still didn't diminish the negativity or the challenge of navigating it.

Lindsey Guajardo of FCC's interactive division was previously a moderator for the AreaVoices "Topics" pages. She said it's a balancing act to keep pace with offensive, derogatory or otherwise inappropriate posts.

"They can be anonymous, and they know they have an audience, and they just go," Guajardo said. "You have to constantly remind yourself that what people say online is not who they really are."

Moderating each comment can be tedious and time-consuming, requiring resources and manpower that some journalism companies don't have.

"To be the voice of the community is something that the newspaper has been for years and years, but what responsibility do we have for these anonymous commenters?" Forum publisher Bill Marcil said.

"As a newspaper, we're looking at that, and we will continue to look at that seriously," Marcil added, "because I am having a problem giving voice to the anonymous commenters. It's starting not to make sense to me."

Irby said he's not opposed to online comments, but he wants controls to encourage civil discourse.

"There's less tolerance for alternative points of view, and that's what journalism has always been about - about presenting as many different voices as possible," he said. "It's increasingly hard to do that in journalism without getting attacked."

News websites aren't the only ones struggling with how to handle the negative commentary, but not everyone agrees that anonymity is wrong, particularly in the blogosphere.

"They add a great deal to the debate, and I think anonymity is important. ... Anonymity makes people more honest," said Rob Port, a Minot-based conservative who operates SayAnythingBlog.com.

"Do anonymous blog comments make discourse less civil? That presumes the discourse was civil before blogging and blog comments, which it ­wasn't," he added.

Bismarck attorney Chad Nodland of the liberal-leaning NorthDecoder.com said online forums have the potential for good, but "sometimes it isn't executed quite like it probably should be."

"I'm generally for civil discourse," Nodland said "The unfortunate truth, though, is that much of the discourse in the world over the past 20 or 30 years has been pretty uncivil."

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