October 2, 2009

Newspaper social media policies: Out of touch

newspapers - (cc) photo by Zarko Drincic on Flickr
Photo by Zarko Drincic on Flickr

JD LasicaThis year we’ve seen the steady succession of social media policies issued by major news organizations. The common theme that runs through these edicts is that they were written by top managers, with the input of lawyers, who seem to have little understanding of how social media can benefit journalism and news organizations by building community.

It’s as if the top editors in the country got together and decided to roll back the clock to 1995, with no appreciation of the enormous forces that have reshaped media in the year 2009.

First, here are the social media policies from major news organizations that I’ve managed to track down:

• Washington Post’s social media policy (leaked this week)

• New York Times’ social media policy

• Associated Press’s social media policy

• Wall Street Journal’s social media policy

For posterity’s sake and for comparative purposes, I’ve republished all of these on Socialmedia.biz at the links above.

I’ve brought attention to the problems with these policies before, including in this Aug. 3 interview with Mashable. Now, some more specific analysis and deconstruction:

A missed opportunity

twitterFirst, what’s striking about these policies is how they are framed: as a “do not” list instead of a “do well” list. This, unfortunaely, has been the way of the world at the vast majority of newspapers since I entered journalism more than two decades ago.

But what’s even more striking is how social networks are perceived in the executive suites of news organizations: as a threat, a knotty problem, filled with challenges to the traditional way of doing business, rather than as a way for news outlets to reengage with their readers and communities.

None of these policies could have been written by someone who deeply understands social media and what it can offer to traditional news organizations.

Standards of objectivity wobble on their pedestal

The winds of change in the mediasphere have shifted so abruptly over the past three years that newspapers — never agile organizations — have not kept pace with the corresponding shifts in our culture.

The notion that journalists don’t have personal lives or opinions, that they shouldn’t reveal political preferences or engage in civic causes regardless of their beat, that they should be shielded from direct interaction with the public for fear of disclosing a compromising point of view — this is sheer lunacy.

If newspapers die, it will be because they splayed themselves on the altar of objectivity rather than moving to a new kind of relationship that the public is clearly craving for.

Policies without a vision

The Wall Street Journal’s policy on online activities inveighs against “sharing your personal opinions.” This backward-looking embrace of the notion that reporters are blank slates is part of the reason newspapers are losing readership and relevance in the digital age.

PostThe Washington Post’s social media policy warns against disclosing how an article was made. “Personal pages online are no place for the discussion of internal newsroom issues such as sourcing, reporting of stories, decisions to publish or not to publish, personnel matters and untoward personal or professional matters involving our colleagues. The same is true for opinions or information regarding any business activities of The Washington Post Company.”

Transparency, it appears, is a foreign idea at the Post. So is humanity — the opportunity to show readers that news is not a commodity produced by a faceless institution but a rich, collaborative process where a lot of fast-moving decisions affect how a story is written and played.

I have a hard time believing that the Post would have issued these rules had Jim Brady still been there as executive editor of washingtonpost.com. What does it say when the executives with vision are being cut loose?

Later this month I’ll take a look at the social media policies of major corporations — and contrast them with the sorry “don’t do” lists offered by the newspaper industry.


Mashable: WSJ Social Media Policy: Still Not Getting It

Mashable: When Does a Social Media Policy Go Too Far? Ask the Associated Press

• Stowe Boyd: Orwellian Nonsense At The Washington Post: Reporters, Shut Up!

paidContent: WaPo’s Social Media Guidelines Paint Staff Into Virtual Corner

TechCrunch: Twitter Unearths A Secret: Journalists Have Opinions

Kyle Austin: WSJ Memo to Staffers on Twitter and Facebook Use

Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine: Missing the point

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JD Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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