Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Oct. 16, 2009, 9 a.m.

Walking the walk on transparency

Openness and transparency and all of those wonderful attributes are easy to defend in the abstract, but the real test of our commitment to them comes when we try to implement them in a specific, real-world case. I found myself in that situation Thursday, after one of our web editors wrote a rather forceful post on our Books blog at, a post that several other senior editors felt crossed a number of important boundaries in terms of professional behavior.

The post (which you can read in full at this blog, which grabbed a copy shortly after it appeared) was about search engine optimization or SEO, which we had just had an internal workshop about. The writer, our online Books editor, said he felt the workshop placed too much emphasis on writing what he believed to be boring headlines in order to please search “robots,” and he promised to only write boring headlines in the future. He also made a number of disparaging personal remarks about the man who gave the workshop, a respected journalism teacher.

After someone noticed the post, it was quickly removed. When I found out about it, I said that I was troubled by that response, and that I felt we should say something about why it was taken down — especially since at least one blogger and several people on Twitter had noticed it was no longer online. The initial response, however, was to not say anything about the removal, with the rationale — one that I have heard many times in the past — being that a response from us would simply give the incident legs.

After some discussion with senior editors, we decided a response would be a good idea, and that I should write a blog post about why we removed it, include a comment from the editor of, and then post a link to it at the blog that had mentioned the removal — all of which I did. In the post, I pointed out that we hadn’t removed the post because of Peter’s negative comments about SEO (as some suspected) but because the Books blog wasn’t an appropriate forum for that discussion. (The personal comments about an invited guest were also offside, I think.)

My argument was twofold. By not responding, I argued that we were ignoring a conversation in which we should be taking part. And by removing something without explaining why, I argued that we were effectively breaching our trust with readers, in however small a way. While an editor slamming his own organization might be damaging to our brand, I argued that the trust of our readers was also a key part of our brand, and that we had to do everything we could to maintain it. That, I think, is the fundamental purpose of being open and honest in the first place. Trust, as Craig Newmark has said, is “the new black.”

I realize this is hardly in the same league as The New York Times debating whether to publish information about kidnapped reporters, or The Washington Post censuring editors for posting their opinions on Twitter, but I think the principle is still an important one. Readers deserve to be told what we are doing and why (within reason), even when doing so makes us uncomfortable. I’m glad we were able to do that in this case, and I hope we can continue doing it.

Photo by Gisela Giardino used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 16, 2009, 9 a.m.
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