Big Newspapers and Twitter: An uneasy relationship
Since news broke earlier this week of expanded guidelines at the Wall Street Journal for use of Twitter and other social networking sites, journalism types have been chewing over the implications for news outlets, their employees and the public.
This is a problem that rises to bite news outlets every so often, and it's rooted in a simple issue: power.
In the information universe, online technology takes power from big institutions and spreads it to the individual. When every citizen with a Web connection has a printing press sitting in their laptop, it becomes a lot tougher for big news outlets like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times to dominate the public discourse.
Same thing happens when big news organizations come to online technology, from Web sites and blogs to Facebook and Twitter. Suddenly, once-anonymous staffers can pass along information about staff meetings, their work on in-progress stories, their feelings about co-workers and any number of messages that can become news stories if attached to a big enough news outlet.
So the newspaper trade journal Editor & Publisher offered a story Thursday dissecting the various policies at newspapers, from the Washington Post requiring a senior editor give approval before a newsroom employee can Twitter to the Austin American-Statesman, which simply reminds employees that they are always seen as ambassadors of the newspaper, wherever they appear online.
From my perspective, the St. Petersburg Times has always leaned toward the casual approach; I established my MySpace, Twitter and Facebook accounts while researching stories and have eventually developed them into platforms that reflect my personal and professional life to varying degrees.
This is the quandary for news outlets used to controlling the information published by employees: These social networking tools only work when staffers have the freedom to create their own brands in the social technology sphere. But such freedom takes power from editors and executives, placing it in the hands of staffers on the front lines of cyberspace -- moves that can seem heretical to old-school editors used to top-down control.
As my online pal James Poniewozik of Time magazine noted, a lot of us out here are already doing stuff that would get stern treatment at the WSJ, including talking about in-progress stories, talking about the reporting process behind stories, criticizing the work of rivals and clearing sensitive posts with editors before posting.
The only real advantage to such a network of impractical rules, is that employees have some recourse if there's a problem with their posts; on a landscape with no rules, any mistake can be a fatal one.
Eventually, news outlets will realize they get more out of jumping into the digital pool than wading on the sidelines. But at a time when we all need to engage readers by any means necessary, handcuffing employees in the social networking sphere hardly seems like a forward-thinking strategy.