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It's familiar by now to hear mocking sounds come from new media champions and writers when old media takes a stand against Twitter or Facebook or some other new tech tool. But new Twitter guidelines issued by the Washington Post on Friday came from inside old media.
Why? Because beyond helping a publication gain traction and authority on news items in real time, social media can be a journalists best tool for job stability. And the new rules threaten them more than anyone else.
On Friday, Washington Post Senior Editor Milton Coleman sent a memo to the staff with a social media policy — effectively immediately — targeted at employees’ use of “individual accounts on online social networks, when used for reporting and for personal use.”
The guidelines, reprinted in full here, implied that staffers should keep their opinions to themselves at all times:
“Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything—including photographs or video—that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility. This same caution should be used when joining, following or friending any person or organization online.”
The response was overwhelmingly negative on blogs, but even those who defended the decision ran into trouble. Book World‘s Ron Charles, responded to a Twitter query from PaidContent's Staci Kramer saying the regulation: “Provides clarification we’ve needed for a while. If 2 restrictive, we can adjust later.”
Unfortunately, Charles ran afowl with that tweet, because staffers can no longer comment on The Post's business decisions. Meanwhile, Post writer Howard Kurtz gets to the heart of the matter with a tweet that is also verboten under the new rules. After explaining that his feed would now stick to recipes and the weather, Kurtz wrote:
"Actually, I always assumed you shouldn’t tweet anything you wouldn’t say in print or on the air. Diff betw having thoughts and being biased.”
And journalists outside of the Post were even more vocal in their complaints. Stephen Bakerat from BusinessWeek says in no uncertain terms that he needs social media, because if his publication's ship goes down, he doesn't want to go with it:
"To subordinate our blogs and updates to the editorial dictates of our employer would work against our interests. It would even undermine the company, which stands to benefit from hosts of vocal and free-spirited brand ambassadors in the social Web. Yet the Washington Post, with its new social media guidelines, is attempting to corral every independent voice in its organization. I’m betting it won’t work."
Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy tweeted: “I would tweak WashPost Twitter policy: staffers can resume tweeting after taking advantage of company-paid lobotomy.”
And over at The New York Times, David Carr wrote that his paper made it through its own Twitter difficulties "by appealing to common courtesy and common sense, with no edicts attached."
"Mainstream outlets who gag social media efforts are unilaterally disarming in the ongoing war for reader attention."
It may be hard for media outlets to dismiss with the trusted practice of editing the content that they publish, but media brands especially can grow their authority by bringing value add to their stories on the microblogging service. And many journalists realize this, even if their publications are hesitant to fully unleash them in the space.
"In the new media age transparency is what delivers trust. [Sambrook] stressed that news today still has to be accurate and fair, but it is as important for the readers, listeners and viewers to see how the news is produced, where the information comes from, and how it works. The emergence of news is as important, as the delivering of the news itself."