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May 14, 2009, 11:08 p.m.

Newspapers and rules on Twitter

This is an update to a recent post about the Wall Street Journal and its policies on Twitter use by its staff. In that post, I essentially agreed with a post by Jeff Jarvis in which he argued that the WSJ policy “missed the point” of social media in general by trying to lock down the behaviour of reporters too much — by restricting them from discussing their stories, being too personal, etc.

Both Steve Buttry of Gazette Communications, in a post at his personal blog and Gina Chen at Save The Media agreed with Jarvis as well, saying the rules were too restrictive and that the newspaper was in danger of missing out on much of the value of social media. Similar thoughts were posted by Pat Thornton at BeatBlogging.org.

Pat also quotes a Twitter post from John Robinson (editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina) that also caught my eye, in which he said:

Twitter rules: I trust the staff to report the news. Shouldn’t I trust them enough to tweet? Is twitter that much harder than reporting?

Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times (who recently joined Twitter himself) put it very similarly in a quote he gave to Editor & Publisher magazine:

“I have asked people to use common sense and respect the workplace and assume whatever they tweet will be tied to the paper. Even when they are tweeting personal information to their followers, they are still representing the New York Times.”

As both the Editor & Publisher piece and this piece in the New York Observer make clear, there has been a bit of controversy within the NYT about tweets that staffers (including @jenny8lee and @michaelluo) were making during a strategy briefing at the paper. I wondered at the time whether what they were broadcasting was an internal meeting or not, but assumed it was not. As it turns out, some editors were of the opinion that posting such things to Twitter should always be out of the question, and that even posting positive things from the newsroom shouldn’t be done by Times reporters.

There was also a back-and-forth involving me, Tim O’Brien (Sunday editor of the NYT business section) and Jeff Jarvis about whether rules on Twitter stifle openness or are simply a judicious application of sensible policies on disclosure. At one point, WSJ executive editor Alan Murray jumped in and said that Twittering about stories wasn’t a good idea because it’s “not a good idea for Woodward to tweet he’s going to meet source in garage.”

The Editor & Publisher story has a good roundup of some other policies at various newspapers, including the Washington Post, which says (among other things):

“When it comes to Twittering for The Post, our senior editors should know beforehand if a reporter plans to Twitter or otherwise live-blog something she is covering. Anything controversial should be checked with an editor before transmission. Tone is also important: we don’t use new media to get into verbal fisticuffs with rivals or critics or to advance personal agendas.”

and the L.A. Times, which says:

“Assume that your professional life and your personal life merge online regardless of your care in separating them. Don’t write or post anything that would embarrass the LAT or compromise your ability to do your job. Assume that everything you write or receive on a social media site is public and knowable to everyone with access to a computer.”

Use of Twitter is something my newspaper is thinking hard about too, and I wouldn’t fault anyone — including the Wall Street Journal — for developing a policy or for trying to protect what it sees as its brand value (trust, etc.) and not giving away its secrets. At the same time, however, I think social media is rarely very effective unless it is truly social, and that means trusting people on your staff to use their best judgment when posting things. And if that removes some of the veil of inscrutability or the illusion of omniscience that hovers over the media, then so be it — the reality is that people identify with and want to connect with people, not brands, and that goes for newspapers just the same as other companies.

Obviously, no one wants a Twitter message to blow a front-page scoop or leak a Watergate coverup. But there’s a long way between that and asking permission before every tweet and removing all personality from a reporter’s use of social media.

Note: Fred Wilson has some worthwhile thoughts on this topic as well, although he isn’t a journalist. And be sure to check the comments, which feature a response from Peter Kafka of All Things Digital (which is owned by the Wall Street Journal) and — as usual — some excellent responses from Fred himself.

POSTED     May 14, 2009, 11:08 p.m.
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