Stephen Baker

The Boost
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How I run afoul of the Washington Post's social media rules--and why

September 28, 2009General

Now that BusinessWeek is for sale and my future at the magazine is uncertain, I'm cross-posting here more and more of my BW stuff. The way I see it, BW is the ship my colleagues and I are on. Our blogs and social networks are skiffs and rowboats we're busy building. Most of us, I'm betting, will spend the rest of our careers with at least one foot outside the mother ship--whichever company it may be.

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.

First, I should mention that lots of the points the Post editors make are on target. Journalists do represent their publication in their private lives. If a Post reporter were heard delivering a hateful tirade in a restaurant or screaming obscenities at a ball park, it would injure the reputation of the newspaper. The same holds true for journalists' behavior on Facebook or Twitter.

Usually, however, it's not so hard to represent both the company and personal brand, because they're closely aligned. Most journalists at the Post, I have no doubt, want to be perceived as intelligent, open-minded, and fair. That's in the paper's interest, too.

But the Post attempts to keep them from expressing opinions.

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.

That is a bit much. In today's political environment, expressing concern about global warming, Stowe Boyd notes, could be used to show bias. Voicing any opinion about Israel or the Palestinians, sex scandals in the Senate, health insurers, you name it, would appear to be verboten.

It seems that the Post wants all the good stuff from blogs and social networks--extension of their brand, traffic to their site--but without any of the problems that come from losing control. Yet the power of these social tools grows from the very freedom of expression that the Post editors are trying to rein in.

With its strictures, the Post also wants to keep its editorial processes veiled.

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.

I would argue that an openness about their processes would inspire greater public trust. The fact is, serious operations like the Washington Post put lots of thought into how they cover stories, and they work much harder than many in the public give them credit for to be thorough and fair. How far should reporters go in reporting on internal processes? Trust them to use their own judgment, and have discussions about it when they appear to go too far.

If BusinessWeek had rules like the Post's, I'd have been out of a job long ago. I've written in recent months about BW's lengthy editing process. Not everyone liked it. But Executive Editor Ellen Pollock, to her credit, came onto my blog and joined the discussion. I also wrote a fairly critical post about our parent company, McGraw-Hill. Again, it was a sensitive subject. It upset some people, and perhaps I crossed a line. But we talked about it, and I'll try to use my best judgment going forward. Here at BW it's our judgment, more than a formal list of do's and don'ts, that guides our behavior outside the magazine. I appreciate that. (cross-posted on Blogspotting.net)

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