Here are some questions and answers that maybe would have helped the reader--and maybe folks who fantasize about talking to reporters at 2 a.m. in public garages--understand the process.
Q. You've decided that the story meets the "overwhelming public concern" test, and the source's need for anonymity is valid. Do you run the story?
A: Not immediately. Most news organizations require independent confirmation from two other sources.
Q: If granting sources anonymity is such a bad thing, why do we keep seeing it in federal government stories?
A: There's a document called "Ground Rules for Interviewing State Department Officials." It enables government officials to not only talk on a not-for-attribution basis, but tell reporters when they can attribute it to "a senior official" or cover the source with a reference like "it has been learned that." Even Dubya's invoked the privilege. He personally briefed several conservative columnists in advance of his 2003 State of the Union speech--on the condition his remarks were attributed to "a senior administration official."
One online letter last week caught my eye, and set off some memories about all those late nights back in 1995 when we were taking StarNet beyond shovelware publishing.
The writer, a gentleman from Phoenix named Paul Tranby, suggested that StarNet do a better job of organizing letters, noting "They are more fun to read if one can follow the debates between letter writers." Tranby asked: Why not cut a hypertext link into a letter when the author refers to a specific letter or editorial?
Back in 1995, a StarNet "plank owner" named Larry Scritchfield had that very same idea. Larry had a master's in library science, and when it came to thinking about the readers' needs, he was a damned sight better than many reporters I've known. One day, he started poking around in the archives to create background links that give letters to the editor better context. Readers loved it.
The practice lives on locally--on the Tucson Citizen's Web site.