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The Salt Lake Tribune discovered a mayoral spokesman's anonymous online sniping about election opponents almost inadvertently.

A user of The Tribune's online comment section flagged a July 21 post made under the pseudonym WhiskeyPete, bringing its content to the attention of administrators at, the newspaper's website.

Tribune Online Digital Director Kevin Morriss said that an online staffer, following policy, reviewed the flagged comment to determine if it complied with site standards. The third-party software platform used by The Tribune to publish and manage user comments — a blog and comment hosting service known as Disqus — automatically displayed WhiskeyPete's email address and Internet Protocol, or IP number on the opening screen.

The online staffer saw the name of Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker's chief spokesman — Art Raymond — contained in the commenter's email address. And the commenter's IP number, the staffer found, was registered to Salt Lake City government.

The staffer deemed the flagged post, which criticized The Tribune, as a fair comment and left it online. But he also contacted Tribune government and politics editor Dan Harrie, who sensed the tip might merit a news story and examined WhiskeyPete's other posts.

An intense newsroom debate ensued, playing out over several days.

"We didn't seek this out," Tribune Editor and Publisher Terry Orme said Thursday. "It kind of fell into our laps, through a staffer's journalistic curiosity."

Orme said he and others had to weigh the newspaper's duty to report Raymond's actions and the legal questions they raise against the risk of chilling free debate in the comment area by publicly identifying one of its users.

The Tribune has allowed user comments to be published on its website under pseudonyms virtually since the newspaper began publishing on the Internet in late 1995. Commenters must register through Disqus and provide an email address for verification but no real names are linked to posted comments as displayed to readers.

However, The Tribune's terms-of-service policy on comments does not guarantee commenters anonymity. It reads: "Your email address may be used to contact you regarding your registration or in regards to comments you have posted on our message boards or comments."

Policy aside, Orme said he and other editors worried that most Tribune online commenters assume their identities will be kept confidential.

In rare instances over the years, The Tribune has provided identifying information on commenters when subpoenaed by law enforcement. More routinely, reporters follow up on news leads from commenters via email.

Since its inception as "Tribune Meeting Hall," the comment sections of have grown into one of the most heavily used parts of its online offerings. Statistics from Disqus indicate Tribune stories drew an average of 3,600 comments per day over the last 30 days.

The comment area can be, by turns, high-minded, freewheeling, caustic and snarky. And while Orme acknowledged he is often repelled by remarks made by Tribune commenters, "the idea is to create a public square, where people sound off comfortably about the issues The Tribune reports on. I don't want to upset that."

But Thursday, editors had decided to publish the Raymond-WhiskeyPete story.

"Information comes to us a lot of different ways," Orme said. "Generally, when we learn things we think readers want to know or should know, our instinct is to write a story and not judge it by how it came to us."

A national adviser to journalists on ethical issues said The Tribune's in-house debate was rightly swayed by the possibility that Raymond's use of public resources — his desktop computer and City Hall network access — in Becker campaign electioneering might have violated the law.

"Knowing what you now know," said Bob Steele, Nelson Poynter Scholar of Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute, "you can't ignore that information."

Twitter: @TonySemerad