Analysis - by on Thursday, May 14, 2009 15:41 - 13 Comments

WSJ looks to the past for new social media policy

The Wall Street Journal just released a new policy regarding social media that asks employees to refrain from being too social.

The policy seems better fit for a different era and a different medium. The policy repeatedly tells employees to “consult your editor” when using social media. The Journal appears to be operating in the same top-down, slow, patriarchal manner of newspapers of old, instead of the open and nimble ethos of social media.

But most of all the policy really tells employees to try to not be too social:

Consult your editor before “connecting” to or “friending” any reporting contacts who may need to be treated as confidential sources. Openly “friending” sources is akin to publicly publishing your Rolodex.

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.

Business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter. 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.

This memo should have been titled the 1990s newspaper refrain of the decade, “Don’t scoop yourself!” But this is the Web. No one seriously talks about scooping themselves anymore.

Instead people talk about transparency, collaboration, engagement, etc. This policy flies in the face of all that. But transparency, collaboration and engagement can produce better journalism. This policy does not make sense for reporters, and I would encourage WSJ reporters to disregard it.

Here are my suggestions to reporters on how to use social media:

  • Be honest, open, transparent and accessible — This will lead to more sources. People are much more willing to contact a reporter who honest, open, transparent and accessible. People would much rather send a Twitter DM than hunt around your newspaper’s site looking for contact info.
  • Use common sense — The same common sense you have used for years as a reporter.
  • Build as big of a strong network as possible on social media — Quality first, quantity second. This means following sources on Twitter, and even, gasp, being “friends” with sources on Facebook. The best part about being open on social media? You’ll find new sources — better sources. This leads to better journalism. We call beatblogging Rolodex 2.0. Forget the old, guarded Rolodex that Journal editors want to preserve, and embrace the more open, larger and superior Rolodex 2.0 of beatblogging.
  • Discuss stories you are working on — Crowdsource, engage your audience and let them help you report. They might have information, facts, figures and links that you wouldn’t have been able to find yourself.
  • Be human and authentic — Social media has helped humanize reporters and get them out front of the institutional walls of newspapers. This may mean mentioning things happening in your personal life. Ron Sylvester mentioned that he hurt his knee and needed surgery on his Twitter feed and it helped humanize him to his readers. He’s not some media drone, and people appreciate that.

John Robinson, editor of the News & Record of Greensboro, North Carolina said this about reporters on Twitter:

Twitter rules: I trust the staff to report the news. Shouldn’t I trust them enough to tweet? Is twitter that much harder than reporting?

You would think so. Twitter isn’t rocket science.

Jeff Jarvis, professor and media critic, had this to say about the new WSJ policy:

This misses the chance to make their reporting collaborative. Of course, they should discuss how an article was made. Of course, they should talk about stories as they in progress. Net natives – as WSJ owner Rupert Murdoch calls them – understand this.

Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc. also provide the opportunity for reporters and editors to come out from behind the institutional voice of the paper – a voice that is less and less trusted – and to become human. Of course, they should mix business and pleasure.

Steve Buttry of Gazette Communications questions whether those who made this new policy even use social media. It seems silly that people would make policies about things they don’t use and understand:

In fact, I question whether the editor(s) who wrote and approved the rules have ever used Twitter, beyond that initial “trying out Twitter” tweet. Deputy Managing Editor Alix Freedman, who sent the rules to the staff using the imperial “we”, can’t be found under that name using Twitter’s “find people” search. (I have asked Freedman in an email if she uses Twitter and have offered her an opportunity to comment.)

Here’s the part that many editors, publishers and news organizations don’t want reporters to hear: Social media and blogs can elevate a reporter to the level where he no longer needs the news organization. Eventually a reporter with a big enough Web presence and social media savvy can start a news startup like Tech Crunch or start a blog at a site like

At the very worst, a reporter that demonstrates considerable Web and social media skills will be considerably more employable than someone who chooses to follow the new WSJ social media policy. It behooves a reporter looking for career longevity to get into social media ASAP.

The thing about it is that news organizations no longer have loyalty to their employees. A Dow Jones employee is only one bad quarter away from being laid off. But if a reporter hasn’t been using social media, blogs and other Web tools, it will be much harder to find a new job.

On the other hand, if you’re a star WSJ reporter and you really get social media, you’ll have no trouble finding a new job. Do you think a new media site like Tech Crunch is looking for curmudgeons who avoided social media (or don’t get how to use it)? No, but someone who knows how to report well, build an audience and engage people will always be in demand — and by more than just journalism companies.

Would the WSJ fire a reporter for smartly engaging in social media? Engagement that leads to better journalism and a stronger connection with readers? Almost assuredly no.

That’s precisely why WSJ reporters should get on social media, expand their networks, converse with people and produce better journalism. Just use common sense, and common sense says not being social on social media doesn’t make much sense at all.

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About was a grant-funded journalism project that studied how journalists used social media and other Web tools to improve beat reporting. It ran for about two years, ending in the fall of 2009.

New content is occasionally produced here by the this project's former editor Patrick Thornton. The site is still up and will remain so because many journalists and professors still use and link to the content. offers a fascinating glimpse into the former stages of journalism and social media. Today it's expected that journalists and journalism organization use social media, but just a few years ago that wasn't the case.

About the Author of this post
Patrick Thornton is the editor and lead writer of BeatBlogging.Org. He is @pwthornton on Twitter.