To put it simply, we were fed up.
A little over a year ago, the online comments attached to stories on our website, buffalonews.com, had degenerated into racism, homophobia and general nastiness. Not always, but far too often.
Naturally, the comments were anonymous, as are almost all Internet comments.
Anonymity was a license for ugliness. Many readers told me that they thought less of The News because we gave a forum to these comments. Staff reporters even began complaining that their sources were drying up because they feared being verbally trashed online.
Reporter Phil Fairbanks recalls one woman who refused to be interviewed for a story about President Obama and the Hawaii connection they shared because of an earlier experience with racist online comments.
"I remember her exact words: 'I don't want to wade into that cesspool again,' " Fairbanks said.
"And she was right. The overall tenor was hateful, ignorant, sexist, and offensive." Fairbanks noted that the comments sometimes provided useful story tips. On balance, they were just ugly.
But what could we do? End commenting altogether? That would have the unfortunate result of stopping the interactivity we wanted on our website, and probably decreasing the viewership of the site.
So we made a bold move. In early August of last year -- after significant preparation -- The News began requiring commenters to use their full names and their hometowns as part of what they wrote. No longer could they hide behind an anonymous handle and spew hatred.
The results were dramatic.
First off, undeniably, there were fewer comments, especially at first.
But those comments were, for the most part, reasonable and not hateful.
A year later, we're glad we made the move.
Let's look at one example of the change. Last Tuesday, Gene Warner's story about the hit-and-run fatal accident involving a prominent Getzville physician accused of drunken driving was the lead story in the morning newspaper.
By mid-morning, the online version of the story -- which detailed the 91 minutes between the car striking 18-year-old Alexandria Rice and Dr. James Corasanti's turning himself in to Amherst police at a gas station -- was followed by more than a dozen comments.
The writers voiced their strong opinions forcefully and provocatively, but in only one case did a writer use insulting language, calling the doctor a "slimeball." That writer was quickly reprimanded by another writer, and the first writer, remarkably, beat a hasty retreat:
"I should not judge or comment about people I do not know. The other comment is right. There is a legal process and it was unfair for me to say what I did. It is a sad story with a terrible outcome. My thoughts and prayers go out to Alix's family."
Imagine that: Civility on the Internet.
The process of getting to this point has been challenging.
"It was not easy and not smooth, but we knew that going into it," says Brian Connolly, who was online editor when we began the process, and is now managing editor. "But we also knew that doing nothing was not an option."
At first, we verified each potential commenter in the same painstaking way we verify writers of letters to the editor in print -- with a newsroom staffer making phone calls and requiring verification of addresses. It went slowly.
Now that verification process, though still overseen by News staffers, has become more automated -- and faster for users -- with the assistance of an outside company that specializes in identity verification.
We now have 6,600 verified commenters, with more added every week. And we keep looking for ways to improve the process.
Meanwhile, the online conversation is free-flowing but generally not offensive. There's only one reason for that change. People are putting their real names behind what they say.
Not many papers, if any, have followed our lead, but I'd recommend it to them. After all, how often can you go this quickly from "cesspool" to civility?