In our ongoing effort to make our website more interactive and engaging, we rolled out a few subtle changes this past weekend.  Some of the refinements are totally under the hood. You won’t really see them. We added a spell checker to our writing and editing tool for creating blog posts, for instance. We all pride ourselves in knowing how to use the English language, but it can’t hurt to have a spell checker given that our editing staff is fairly small.

 
One change you might notice is that we’ve made our “donate” link far more prominent on our homepage because, frankly, we want to stay in business for a long time to come. A little more visibility can’t hurt.
 
And in our ongoing effort to promote and encourage responsible commenting, we’ve added a new star-rating system on our site. Readers can now rate all comments on stories, blogs and data features. If someone makes a particularly astute observation or you just plain agree, say it with stars. You can rate a comment from one to five stars – with five being the highest.  No reason to mince words here. If you think a comment sucks, give it one star. The average rating bestowed by all readers appears alongside your rating.  It’s basically a Yelp-inspired system. We like it because it’s simple and easy. It provides a little more flexibility than the thumbs up/thumbs down rating systems that a lot of other sites appear to be gravitating toward.
 
Adding star ratings to comments is a simple way to reward and acknowledge commenters who are especially articulate or persuasive. Is there shame in one-star comments? That’s in the eye of the commenter, I suppose. But you can express your dissatisfaction when you think any commenter falls below the bar.
 
The rating system is just our latest effort to keep that bar high. A couple months back we eliminated anonymous commenting. Since we did that, we’ve barely had to remove any inappropriate comments (although we’re still battling with an influx of spam commenting on our site).
 
We’ve also given away an iPod Touch each of the last two months as part of our Debate Championship promotion. Every month, we enter the best comments on our site into a drawing and ship out an iPod Touch to the winner.  You can read more about the promotion here.  
 
We think the promotion, the removal of anonymous comments and the rating system all are steps that will help make our online forum an engaging, informative and family-friendly place to be. Let us know what you think.

California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and is now the largest investigative reporting team operating in the state. Visit the Web site at www.californiawatch.org for in-depth coverage of K-12 schools, higher education, money and politics, health and welfare, public safety and the environment.

Mark Katches is a past editorial director for The Center for Investigative Reporting. He is currently editor of the Oregonian and vice president of content for the Oregonian Media Group. Previously, he built and ran investigative teams at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Orange County Register. Mark was the primary editor of Pulitzer Prize-winning projects in both 2008 and 2010 and edited or managed five other stories that were Pulitzer finalists. Projects he edited or directed also have won the George Polk Award, the IRE award and the Scripps-Howard National Journalism Award as well as the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the Worth Bingham Prize, the Sigma Delta Chi Award and the National Headliner Award. Multiplatform projects produced by CIR staff under Mark's guidance won a national News & Documentary Emmy, two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, a George Foster Peabody Award and an Edward R. Murrow Award. He has overseen projects or websites that have won four Online Journalism Awards in the last decade, in addition to logging more than a dozen OJA finalists. In 2001, he was part of a reporting team that won the Gerald Loeb and IRE awards for a series of stories detailing the rising profits from the human tissue trade. He completed a Punch Sulzberger Fellowship at Columbia University in 2013 and has taught reporting classes as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California, UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford University. Mark served on the board of directors of Investigative Reporters and Editors for four years and oversaw the IRE mentorship program for six years.