Almost immediately after launching our California Watch Web site in early January, we went to work on changes for our “Phase 2.”

The first results of that work relate to our commenting. And the changes just went live.

It is now dramatically easier to register on our site. That means instead of filling out a longer form, we now are requiring only a few simple steps before registered users can comment on our stories, blog posts and databases.

The flipside is that we have eliminated anonymous commenting. We believe this change adds greater credibility and accountability to the online discussion surrounding our work. We recognize that we might lose some comments. But we think the tradeoff is worth it.

It’s also going to be a lot easier to respond to other comments by simply hitting “reply.” Your comment will appear underneath the comment you’re responding to.

Expect other refinements on our commenting area in the near future. We really want to add a rating system, allowing readers to weigh in on other comments. It’s another step we can take to encourage responsible commenting.

In the next few days we are going to announce a special contest/promotion on our site that we hope will be fun and will help elevate the debate. It will work like this: At the end of every month through this summer, our staff will choose the most reasoned, incisive comments that appear on our site. There will be no limit to the number we select. It could be one. It could be 100. It could be any number in between. Comments will be judged on clarity of thinking and persuasiveness. The authors will then be entered into a drawing to win a free iPod Touch. You don’t have to agree with our content to be entered into the drawing. You just have to be thoughtful, focused and articulate in making your argument. We think it’s a fun way to encourage a healthy debate and discussion. Watch for more details soon.

In the meantime, I hope you try out our new commenting system. What do you think about our story this weekend that detailed how state workers are walking away from their government jobs with massive vacation payouts? Or how about our story about DUI checkpoints where police are more likely to seize cars from sober, unlicensed drivers? Our staff is also generating several blog items a day on our California Watchblog,  And now a better forum for discussion awaits.

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.