24 Comments

Summary:

With an internal memo telling editors and reporters not to respond to readers through the newspaper’s Twitter account, the Washington Post has provided another compelling example of how traditional media — and newspapers in particular — aren’t really getting the whole “social” aspect of social media.

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It’s been awhile since we had a blow-up among traditional media entities about using Twitter and other social media, but now the Washington Post has provided yet another compelling example of how newspapers in particular aren’t really getting the whole “social” aspect of the social-media phenomenon. This was easy to forgive a year or two ago, when Twitter was relatively new, and social media was unfamiliar territory, but it’s really hard to cut the Washington Post or its brethren much slack at this point. Now it almost seems like they don’t want to get it.

The issue this time, according to a report from Washington-based news startup TBD, was an editor using the newspaper’s Twitter account to defend the Post’s decision to run a particular column. The Post hasn’t provided any details, but TBD says that the complaint came from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which was upset about a column written by an anti-gay activist that ran in the paper’s faith section. According to TBD, an editor posted to Twitter to defend the running of the column by saying the newspaper was trying to cover both sides of the issue.

This led to a memo from Post managing editor Raju Narisetti, entitled “responding to readers via social media.” In it, Narisetti said that posting the tweet was wrong, and that while the newspaper encourages everyone in the newsroom to “embrace social media and relevant tools,” the main purpose of the Post’s accounts on these various networks is to “use them as a platform to promote news, bring in user-generated content and increase audience engagement with Post content.” Isn’t responding to readers a way of increasing engagement? Apparently not. The Post editor went on to say that:

No branded Post accounts should be used to answer critics and speak on behalf of the Post, just as you should follow our normal journalistic guidelines in not using your personal social media accounts to speak on behalf of the Post.

Narisetti said that while the newspaper welcomed responses from readers in the form of comments on its stories — and was prepared to “sometimes engage them in a private verbal conversation” — debating issues with readers personally through social media was not allowed. Why? Because this would be “equivalent to allowing a reader to write a letter to the editor and then publishing a rebuttal by the reporter.” The Washington Post ME didn’t provide any details on why this would be a bad thing, just that “it’s something we don’t do.” But why not? Surely criticism over the newspaper’s coverage of issues is a perfect occasion to engage with those readers, both on Twitter and elsewhere.

The fact that Narisetti was the one delivering this message is more than a little ironic, since the Post editor was involved in his own run-in with Post management over Twitter. Last year, the ME came under fire from senior editors after he posted some of his thoughts about political topics on his personal Twitter account. After the paper instituted a restrictive new social-media policy, Narisetti posted a message saying that “for flagbearers of free speech, some newsroom execs have the weirdest double standards when it comes to censoring personal views.” He later deleted his account.

There’s no question that Twitter has been the source of much tension in newsrooms across the country, and around the world, because of the way in which it makes journalism personal — something that many journalists see as a positive thing, but many traditional media entities see as a threat. Earlier this year, a senior editor at CNN was fired over remarks she made on Twitter, and just today, the BBC reprimanded its staff for sharing what the service called “their somewhat controversial opinions on matters of public policy” via social-networking sites like Twitter.

It seems that many media outlets are happy to use social media to promote their content, but when it comes to really engaging with readers, they would rather not.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Zarko Drincic

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  1. Come on Mathew. You ought to know better than that, having worked at a newspaper yourself.

    These days newsrooms are certainly not growing and reporters are asked to do more and more while they see no increases in pay. As much as reporters might like to spend time chatting about the stories they write, defending them or otherwise, do they really have the time?

    Furthermore, wouldn’t a reporter’s time be better spent digging up the next great story that everyone will be twittering about?

    I consume a lot of online news and I know that the comments and Twitter can be full of trolls waiting to pounce on every perceived slight and every real or imagined error.

    Considering the business they’re in, and the fact that they still have relatively deep pockets (and libel insurance), newspapers do have to be careful what they say.

    I think there’s room for limited engagement, but people do have to be realistic. I’ve been a reporter and now work in SEO, so I understand both sides.

    I really would prefer if reporters focused their efforts on reporting.

    1. I agree that many reporters are overworked, Alain, and I know that comments and other forums can be full of trolls — but nevertheless, I think reading and responding has become a crucial part of what journalism and media is now, and reporters and editors have to make time for it.

      1. Nobody seems to talk about the sense of entitlement social media users seem to have. Some seem to think that they’re entitled to a response whenever they directly address someone or an organization. And if they don’t get a response they’ll go on about how the organization or individual doesn’t care, or doesn’t get social media.

        Yes, the media is changing and social media is a part of what they do. Viewers, listeners and readers do have to be reasonable though. Some engagement is fine, but for a certain segment, some is never enough.

    2. Alain

      I am so sorry that journalists and columnists have to now to do more work than they have done in the past. Considering that the unemployment rate across the country is 10% and much higher when certain stats are taken into account, this is just a cold hard fact. Why should journalists be exempt from the same sacrifices like pay freezes or reductions that the rest of the country and workforce are experiencing. They aren’t any more special than anyone else.

      Furthermore I don’t think reporting and engaging a story’s readers after the fact are mutually exclusive. One can still be an excellent reporter or columnist and still use various social tools to engage readers without it getting in the way of breaking the next big story.
      In fact, one could argue, and I will, that finding the next story, the followup, diving deeper into an already reported piece, is made easier when the author of that story engages with the community of people who read the initial piece.

      Z

      1. Great point, Zachary — totally agree.

  2. Zachary Adam COhen Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    That whole we just dont do it schtick is so lame at this point. They’ve had enough time, they aren’t committed to it, it is nothing short of a shame.

    I really don’t read the WaPo much anymore and their system connecting to Facebook is VERY buggy…

    z

  3. The BBC thing has a different background story.

    The BBC is funded by the taxpayers and has to be impartial in its reporting of news and political bias is verboten. No BBC employee can support or criticize the government in any way shape or form.

    If you have a particular fetish for British politics I suggest to read the posts that sparked the “twitter” issue at
    http://order-order.com/2010/10/20/bbc-bosses-to-left-wing-staff-stop-tweeting/

    So yeah the spaztard reaction has been DO NOT TWEET simply because the government is looking at ways of reducing costs at the BBC and putting it under their control, so even an innocent tweet can cause many headaches.

    1. The BBC may be sponsored by the British Government (actually British taxpayers pay a yearly fee I believe) but that has no bearing on whether they are objective enough. They may try to be, and I believe they do, but I think it is well documented that the BBC has a progressive/ liberal perspective. I certainly view it that way.

      Z

  4. Couldn’t have said it better myself, Mathew. It’s unfortunate because I have good friends at WaPo and they are making some real strides in social media. But for every step forward, it seems like they take steps back due to silly things like this.

    1. Thanks, Craig — it is kind of sad. I am sure there are plenty of people in the newsroom who feel differently but are powerless to act on it.

  5. Interestingly here in the UK Sky News (a competitor to the BBC) encourage twitter with the newsroom hosts, the BBC (morning news certainly) give no such channel – a sign of confidence and lack of respectively ?

  6. A few misdeeds of the influential could be blocked by the tail wagging newsroom bosses. But now you have the social medias to overcome that.

  7. This is most definitely a #fail but easy to see why trad media publishers are struggling in social. It threatens the core of their business model and you can see why this is so tough for them. Are there any trad media publishers who have adapted well, integrated social media and increased their revenue stream? None spring to my mind. Please share if you do know who is flourishing. Are some en route to a #failbetter?

    Mei

  8. Henry Elliss, Tamar Thursday, October 21, 2010

    I’ve got to say, whilst this is obviously a bit of a #fail from the point of view of using a blanket-response to ban all use of Twitter, the original message being put out is sort of sound. As somebody who does social media for both our clients and our own company, I’m very careful about who I let have access to our branded platforms. Posting personal views through a branded account could get you in a LOT of hot water legally, so it’s smart to avoid letting people post potentially divisive views on a site like Twitter, in my opinion…

    1. Thanks for the comment, Henry — I am willing to cut the Post some slack on the official Twitter account part of this story. Perhaps that isn’t the place for such a response. But then where has the paper responded? It hasn’t. And the memo suggests that it’s not proper for reporters to respond through their own accounts either.

      1. That’s a very fair point – the paper needs to have SOME channel for the dialogue to take place in, other than the super-slow back-and-forth of the “Letters to the Editor” page.

      2. How about editorial ombudsman for each section: politics, world, lifestyle, sports? Each sectioin could have its own Twitter account to be used specifically by pre-ordained editors to respond to reader feedback and comments, defend when necessary, acknowledge mistakes othertimes….I think that would be effective.

  9. I have no problem with this policy because a Twitter account for a brand will represent the brand and risks damaging that brand if used incorrectly.

    Laws still matter and lawsuits based on views made public are a real concern for people who run news businesses.

    The Post is right to instruct that the branded account not be used to argue with critics. You can respond and ask the people to submit a letter to the editor to be published but that is about it.

    If a reporter wishes to engage a critic, they should use their newspaper-branded twitter account to do so.

    What is the value of engaging a critic on Twitter and also what is the potential risk?

    Bloggers must take legal issues and potential brand issues into consideration before determining that “they just don’t get social media” because it is far too easy to look at an issue only from one standpoint.

    1. Again David, this presumes that human beings, reporters or not, don’t have personal views. The more the journalistic world holds to this impossible ideal, the more sequestered they become. Instead, just acknowledge that personal bias will always play some part, aim for as objective as possible and then use these new tools we are talking about, to BRIDGE THE GAP after the fact.

      Gosh it really isn’t that hard. If they would just try!

  10. I have to take issue with this post’s references to “newspapers” and “their brethren” not getting it, when it cites a *single* newspaper’s policy and social media-related firings by two *broadcast* entities.

    WaPo’s reaction highlights the need to have a plan to let the most appropriate person or department respond (or help craft the response) to comments. Speaking from the marketing side, we certainly want to see interaction, but getting into a heated debate would be terrible for image.

    That said, I do agree that social media works when you don’t just treat it like a distribution channel. It is that, but stopping there defeats the purpose.

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