One of the issues facing traditional media in the online-media age is not just losing their status as gatekeepers for their readers; it’s how to remain the gatekeepers for their own staff. In other words, when anyone can post anything online, immediately, in chatrooms, blogs, Facebook or Twitter, what limits do you put on your journalists? Should you put any at all?
The WSJ parent Dow Jones evidently believes it should—and how. Editor and Publisher reprinted a memo to staff from WSJ management setting restrictions on their use of social-networking media like Facebook and Twitter. Some are simple common sense: e.g., Dow Jones staffers shouldn’t use false names when representing the company. But others call into question how well the company—which in many ways has used the Internet well, or at least smartly, business-wise—gets online media today.
* “Don’t discuss articles that haven’t been published, meetings you’ve attended or plan to attend with staff or sources, or interviews that you’ve conducted.” [I’m constantly Tweeting about shows I plan to review, columns I’m planning to write, or tossing around ideas for topics I might work on.]
* “Let our coverage speak for itself, and don’t detail how an article was reported, written or edited.” [Ditto. I do this even more often on this blog. In fact, I kind of think that’s what this blog is for. Among other things, it’s the DVD director’s cut with commentary of my TIME work.]
* “Don’t disparage the work of colleagues or competitors…” [I suppose this post itself would count as that] “…or aggressively promote your coverage” [Huh? I’m not sure I know a journo online who doesn’t post links to his/her work–and if you follow a journo on Twitter, why would you not want them to link their work?]
* “All postings on Dow Jones sites that may be controversial or that deal with sensitive subjects need to be cleared with your editor before posting.” [Granted, I’m not a straight-news reporter, but this would nix, say, my tweeting about Miss California.]
* “Business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter…” [No more tweeting about mustard!]
* “… Common sense should prevail, but if you are in doubt about the appropriateness of a Tweet or posting, discuss it with your editor before sending.” [As I tweeted yesterday, I would pay good money to watch some WSJ reporter annoy an overworked editor with a request like this. That’s a good way to get a keyboard thrown at you.]
Most of this boils down to the classic old-media problem with new media: fear of the loss of control. Fear that, usually, is misplaced and counterproductive. Take the worries about discussing story topics. I can’t say how often I’ve heard people raise the concern about letting “the competition” know what you’re up to. My usual answer: there are exceptions, but in reality there are very few stories so sui generis and original that they would be harmed by people knowing they’re in the works. And one can get tremendous insight and info by crowd-sourcing some topics in advance.
Transparency is one of the great benefits of the Web, not a danger. The audience for media outlets wants to know—and deserves to know—how decisions are made, what goes into producing a story, how the process of knowledge-gathering and idea-making is constant and flawed. Hiding that process isn’t about serving anyone but ourselves—really, covering our asses. And that only hurts us; journalists are better off showing that they’re human, that they make mistakes and that they (hopefully) learn from them.
As for the worries about “mixing business and pleasure”? Kindly remove the stick, please. Sure, oversharing is a danger, and journos are sometimes guilty—use some common sense before you tweet what you’re having for lunch. (Then again, maybe you’re a food critic. Or just have really good taste.) I tend to tweet from the hip, but even I know that some revelations are better saved for friends on Facebook—or maybe a licensed therapist.
But sharing—building relationships with your audience and putting a human face on a profession that likes to carve its image in marble—is a good thing. And in this age, absolutely essential for any media outlet that wants to survive. They should encourage it, not draw up rules to curb it. (In fairness, I should note that Time Inc. is not exactly without its own corporate-policy manacles, and that I started a Twitter account on my own, not because anyone at TIME suggested it.)
The guidelines Dow Jones put out basically instruct their staffers to be the most boring social-networkers online, to be withholding from their readers, and generally, to guarantee themselves a tiny online following. If the editors and managers at the WSJ and other Dow Jones properties have any sense, they will instruct their staff to break these rules as much as possible.
I’d invite comment from the Dow staffers subject to these regulations, here or on Twitter, but presumably the rules bar them from voicing an opinion. So I’ll take their silence as agreement. See, Dow Jones! You just let me—and the rest of the online world—take over the discussion.
[Update: In other words—what Jeff Jarvis said.]
[Update 2: E&P follows up with a roundup of other newspaper Twitter policies, many of which are much more reasonable—use common sense, be responsible.]