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Summary:

Late Friday afternoon, Washington Post (NYSE: WPO) Senior Editor Milton Coleman sent a memo to the staff with a social media policy — effec…

Washington Post In Box
photo: AP Images

Late Friday afternoon, Washington Post (NYSE: WPO) Senior Editor Milton Coleman sent a memo to the staff with a social media policy — effectively immediately — aimed at staffers’ use of “individual accounts on online social networks, when used for reporting and for personal use.” The new policy was translated externally by WaPo ombudsman Andy Alexander on his blog, along with a worst-case illustration: the decision by Managing Editor Raju Narisetti, responsible for features and the web, to shut down what appears to have been a small Twitter account intended for a private audience of friends and associates (as private as something that goes to 90-ish people can be) after some of his comments were called into question. Most of the online conversation that ensued was among people who had not yet seen the guidelines, which the paper, in a major transparency failure, didn’t make public. paidContent has obtained the full text, posted below. Some of the guidelines are important ethical points about identification and transparency that I and others have encouraged since journalists started using the internet; some go to the kind of extreme that led newsrooms to exclude outbound links.

While the instant reaction was mostly negative or caustic (active tweeter Howard Kurtz said he’d be sticking to weather or recipes), one staffer, Book World‘s Ron Charles, responded to my Twitter query with relief that at least a policy had been spelled out: “Provides clarification we’ve needed for a while. If 2 restrictive, we can adjust later.” Unfortunately, now that I’ve seen the full policy, that response would seem not to meet the guidelines: the long list of things a WaPo staffer shouldn’t do online includes talking about newsroom or the paper’s business activities (say, for instance, criticizing plans to sell access to reporters in the publishers’ living room?), and or criticizing “competitors or those who take issue with our journalism or our journalists.”

Instead of finding ways to encourage engagement, it’s easy to see how these guidelines could drive it the other way. I’m not sure I would do anything in social networking with this as a framework. Steve Buttry explains why journalism orgs need conversations, not restrictions. This should be the beginning of an important conversation within the WaPo newsroom.

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The following are effective immediately:
Newsroom Guidelines for Use of Facebook, Twitter and Other Online Social Networks (emphasis added)

Social networks are communications media, and a part of our everyday lives. They can be valuable tools in gathering and disseminating news and information. They also create some potential hazards we need to recognize. When using social networking tools for reporting or for our personal lives, we must remember that Washington Post journalists are always Washington Post journalists. The following guidelines apply to all Post journalists, without limitation to the subject matter of their assignments.

Using Social Networking Tools for Reporting

When using social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, My Space or Twitter for reporting, we must protect our professional integrity. Washington Post journalists should identify themselves as such. We must be accurate in our reporting and transparent about our intentions when participating. We must be concise yet clear when describing who we are and what information we seek.

When using these networks, nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment. We never abandon the guidelines that govern the separation of news from opinion, the importance of fact and objectivity, the appropriate use of language and tone, and other hallmarks of our brand of journalism.

Our online data trails reflect on our professional reputations and those of The Washington Post. Be sure that your pattern of use does not suggest, for example, that you are interested only in people with one particular view of a topic or issue.

Using Social Networking Tools for Personal Reasons

All Washington Post journalists relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens. Post journalists must recognize that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or on our website.

What you do on social networks should be presumed to be publicly available to anyone, even if you have created a private account. It is possible to use privacy controls online to limit access to sensitive information. But such controls are only a deterrent, not an absolute insulator. Reality is simple: If you don

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  1. Editorial page editor Anthony Ronzio (@ronzio) of one of Maine's largest daily newspapers used his Twitter account to post this about me (I am a candidate for Governor of Maine): @amycasey If this continues, @justinnxt should bring out a hammer of his own: http://bit.ly/1Asuzr

    I believe strongly in free speech, but felt that Ronzio had crossed the line and called it out as such.

    I feel that the best practices of use in social media are in their infancy and quickly evolving, so all sides may need to have a little flexibility and give and take as these develop, but stay responsible.

    Ronzio had been responding to this article and my associated comments etc.

    http://blogs.pressherald.mainetoday.com/blogs/nxt-next-generation/the-curious-case-of-alex-hammer-and-the-twitterjacking

  2. The post you are linking to seems to have been removed. That's interesting.

  3. Thanks for posting on this important topic.

    Is it just me, or does this policy seem a little drastic? It would be interesting to know whether journalists at other news organizations are under similar dictates. Regardless, it's symptomatic of an industry that's at an inflection point and not sure how to evolve.

    I value quality journalism as well as anybody. I have great respect for the editorial process. We get two newspapers in our household: the Washington Post and the New York Times, and eagerly devour those as well as articles from dozens of other publications on a daily basis. I know that a lot of what's published online is dreck, or just plain wrong. But that doesn't mean that professional news organizations can stick their heads in the sand and hope it goes away.

    I've posted more thoughts on this at: http://lajump.cloudprofile.com:80/5474/2009/09/28/1st-amendment-rights–except-for–washingtonpost-staffers—-sdkstl.html.

  4. Daniel Schoonmaker Wednesday, September 30, 2009

    As a journalist, I don't quite understand the negative reaction to these guidelines. I would view this as an extension of industry common sense. Be conscious of what you're publishing and vigilant against appearance of bias.

  5. David Carr had a great analysis of this situation in his blog on the NYTimes this week. Worth a read, particularly if you are a journalist. http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/28/washington-post-to-staff-twitterers-watch-your-mouth/

  6. I don't think WaPo's policy just paints their journalists into a corner. I also think that there are larger implications to consider. I work in international media development, and use news media like WaPo as an example in training seminars to journalists around the world. I've been trying to promote, esp. in former Soviet countries, more openness through through social media. And WaPo comes along and essentially shoots that all down. This could have important ramifications in developing countries. More thoughts on this: http://aimd.wordpress.com/2009/10/11/wapos-social-media-guidelines-bad-news-for-international-media-development/

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  8. I’m a journalist and I think the time of the byline is over. If you have to say good by to your private and social spaces in order to have a salary, then the best choice for the paper is to take full responsabilitiy for it content and free the reporters of this burden. That way I can keep my name and my rights, because my life encompass much more than the paid working time in the newsroom.

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