Newspapers Tweeting Like Crazy — But What Are the Rules?

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By: Joe Strupp

The explosion of Twitter and Facebook use by newspapers this spring has sparked a mixed bag of reaction from editors and other newsroom leaders over how to control — or not control — the use by their staffs.

The Wall Street Journal raised attention this week when it expanded its conduct guidelines to include a whole host of online-related restrictions, including warnings not to “friend” confidential sources or get into Web-related arguments with critics. Others have issued guidelines.

But not everyone is laying down the law on Twitter, say editors. Some want staffers to have a casual, open approach, while others admit they aren’t sure how to police the social media outlets and still allow them to be useful. “I have asked people to use common sense and respect the workplace and assume whatever they tweet will be tied to the paper,” said Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, who started tweeting (sparingly) himself just last week. “Even when they are tweeting personal information to their followers, they are still representing the New York Times.”

Earlier this week, Keller held his semi-annual meeting with staffers, in which he says he “made a point of asking people to apply common sense whether it is a public speech, a radio appearance or anything like Twitter — use their noggin,” he recalls. But he said no specific rules have been added for Twitter and Facebook, although he acknowledged staff workshops have been held to teach reporters the best use of Twitter.

The New York Times also had a bit of an internal controversy when several reporters at a Monday meeting posted items about it on their own Twitter accounts.

The New York Observer reports that the leaking tweets led to several online stories at Gawker and The Guardian. Later, at Keller’s meeting, he reportedly brought up the issue, noting a need for a “zone of trust” and less spreading of such internal events via tweets.

Marcus Brauchli, executive editor of The Washington Post, told E&P on Wednesday his only directive was that a senior editor must give approval before a Post employee can Twitter, adding that “I would assume people exercise good judgment.”

But Brauchli later provided what he said was a new Post policy on the social networking sites, which his office said was created after E&P asked about it. Among its warnings: avoid “verbal fisticuffs with rivals or critics.”

The Post policy states: “In general, we expect that the journalism our reporters produce will be published through The Washington Post, in print or digitally, not on personal blogs, Facebook or MySpace pages, or via Twitter or other new media. We are happy to have reporters post links to their stories or other Post material.

“When it comes to Twittering for The Post, our senior editors should know beforehand if a reporter plans to Twitter or otherwise live-blog something she is covering. Anything controversial should be checked with an editor before transmission. Tone is also important: we don’t use new media to get into verbal fisticuffs with rivals or critics or to advance personal agendas. That said, we very much encourage our journalists to experiment with new ways of serving our audience.

“On the use of new media outside of work: We assume that our journalists won’t embarrass The Post or impair their journalistic independence through anything they may publish on Twitter, Facebook, blogs or any other new media. We don’t and can’t practically monitor everything our reporters might do in their own time, so we rely primarily on their good judgment and common sense.”

The Wall Street Journal and Post followed the Los Angeles Times, which made a similar update to its rules in March, with a lengthy list of “social media” guidelines that make clear staffers are always linked to the paper when they engage in online activities. “Assume that your professional life and your personal life merge online regardless of your care in separating them. Don’t write or post anything that would embarrass the LAT or compromise your ability to do your job,” one of the rules states. Adds another, “Assume that everything you write or receive on a social media site is public and knowable to everyone with access to a computer.”

Even with that strict approach, the Los Angeles Times is among the most active newspapers on Twitter, with some 144 accounts, half of them by individual reporters and other news staffers. “We understand people need to be more casual to fit in to that culture,” says Andrew Nystrom, the Times’ senior producer for social media. “We encourage them to say what is on their minds and that gets a better response.”

At the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, Internet Editor Robert Quigley says a similar common sense approach is in use to guide those who Twitter: “We have not made specific rules for Twitter and Facebook, we trust you to be responsible about it. You always work for the newspaper, that is how people see you.”

Staffers at The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer are encouraged to Twitter as part of their reporting, says Steve Gunn, editor for innovation. He said no formal policy exists, but each Twittering employee must inform him and go through a short review of the site approach with him.

“We discourage them from any opinionated stuff,” Gunn said. “Unless they are a columnist.” The informal directive is to Twitter updates from news events and links to Web stories.

Then there is The Record in Hackensack, N.J., which has four editors who collect and post Twitter items for the paper. But Managing Editor Frank Burgos says Twittering by anyone else on company time is discouraged.

“My expectation is they are not tweeting on behalf of the company,” he says of staffers. “I don’t expect the reporter to use Twitter to promote. If they do it in their off hours, I am okay with it. But we don’t want people to excessively use Twitter.”

The Wall Street Journal memo, first posted in full by E&P yesterday, included this: “Base all comments posted in your role as a Dow Jones employee in the facts, drawing from and citing your reporting when appropriate. Sharing your personal opinions, as well as expressing partisan political views, whether on Dow Jones sites or on the larger Web, could open us to criticism that we have biases and could make a reporter ineligible to cover topics in the future for Dow Jones.”

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