When Newspaper Execs Talk Social Media

I haven’t been in Washington for most of the last week on vacation, but there was one story that was hard to avoid throughout my reader and streams from back in the District: the backlash against new social media policies for Washington Post reporters. The long and the short of it is that the journalists who use these sources must treat their new, unfiltered mouthpieces as they would an edited, long-form story; that is, they must continue to embrace neutrality and fact-based reporting as the only ethical way to talk about the news.

The anger arises from those who look uphold the core of “social” media: it is unabashed about its biases, uncowardly about its  uncouth behavior. The social channel of media, the one that we create and the one in which the audience says who is the authority, relies more than anything on transparency. Those who are almost to devoid of opinion or commentary, because of the rote simplicity of these channels, are as suspicious as those who let their lack-of-neutrality fly high.

The question becomes what to make of a policy that almost neuters the essence of this form of communication.

When it comes to an insider of old media and its changes, one of the first sources I turn to is usually Howard Kurtz. The fact that he’s with the Post made it even more likely to flip over to his page to see where he came down on these policies:

Not to put a damper on a great fuss, but I think this is entirely reasonable. I don’t see it as a corporate attempt to crush creativity and sap the soul. People follow journalists on Twitter and Facebook because they’re interested in what the person writes, blogs or says on television. We can’t pretend we’re random people who can just pop off at will.

No one is saying we can’t engage on these sites, or that some Post editor has to provide tweet-by-tweet approval.

I think there’s plenty of running room to be insightful and entertaining — within the confines of 140 characters — and engage in dialogue with people who care about politics and journalism.

Translation: wet blanket.

The move, as explained in Andrew Alexander’s (WaPo Ombudsman) piece this morning, is to preserve neutrality and credibility. He even goes as far to site examples of a reporter who used Twitter to make statements about the political viability and circumstances of health care reform issues.

To both of these men, here’s what I say: tough.

We are not in an age where distant reporters are what people ask for. Yes, Mr. Alexander, you will continue to get people who send you e-mails each week complaining about a newspaper’s bias. However, the difference is that the audience finally has a way to “change the channel” of print media, so do what you can to keep your audience focused on you (hey, it may even drive Web traffic!) No one wants to follow a bland person who just links to their own content. Engaging is important – albeit risky because it requires transparency – and it is a must-take proposition.

You actually have an opportunity to show that your reporters are human, that they have opinion and willing to engage in smart conversation. Why would you throw that away?

Image: Brian Lane Winfield Moore’s “Loose Tweets Sink Fleets” via Flickr


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