Reinventing the Newsroom

That Whole Dow Jones Social-Media Thing

Posted in Branding, Communities, Cultural Change, Social Media, The Journalist as Brand, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on May 15, 2009

You might have heard that the Wall Street Journal issued rules for how its reporters and editors should conduct themselves on social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. I’d like to add a few points to the conversation, while stating up front that I’m going to tread a bit carefully, seeing how Dow Jones is my former employer and one of my current employer’s customers. (Call me a tremendous wuss if you want.)

  • Reading criticism of the memo, it’s easy to miss that the vast majority of the directives are thoroughly non-controversial. Don’t use fake names, don’t pick messy public fights, don’t get political or partisan, don’t send your friends and family into battle on your behalf, don’t advocate for specific products or solutions if that’s not your job, don’t friend your top-secret sources. All basic, sound advice, and nothing that should give even the most networked Web journalist pause.
  • Anybody who’s worked for any big organization knows there are Rules and there are rules. The former are electrified fences, clearly marked and well-respected by any responsible employee. The latter are things for which you get written up if you’ve screwed up something more substantive — the corporate equivalent of disorderly conduct. Memos don’t make such distinctions; worker bees do without breaking a sweat.

Ultimately, it’s two points in the Dow Jones memo that are drawing the real fire — the apparent prohibition against crowdsourcing and the warning about mixing business and personal.

I understand why people have seen the warning not to discuss unpublished articles or interviews as a crowdsourcing veto, but as a Journal alum I doubt it was intended that way — given the Journal’s long and proud history of news that moves financial markets, I read it as a reiteration of the paper’s deeply held and understandable prohibition against showing your cards to competitors, sharp-eyed investors or the subjects of  articles. I doubt the Journal would apply the same rules for reporters covering the SEC to those investigating fitness or travel trends. Besides, journalists have always been crowdsourcers of a sort — you could fill China with the number of people quoted in trend pieces who turn out to be friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends. As with so many things, the Web has improved this process (sources come from wider social circles, as they always should have) and made it more efficient, while also making it transparent and preserving a record of it.

The second point is the warning about business and pleasure — and the real rub. Both journalists and the papers they work for are adapting to fairly massive cultural changes here, with pressure to change coming from all sides:

  • Web readers are wading through a glut of commoditized information from a dizzying number of sources, and personality is a welcome bit of signal amid all this noise.  But that encourages a level of openness and disclosure from journalists that marks a change from the old rules.
  • Papers are struggling to deal with the low returns (in money and reader loyalty) made from drive-by traffic to articles from search and sharing of links. With the article having replaced the paper as the unit by which news is consumed, papers are experimenting with creating new contexts to capture reader attention and loyalty. Turning writers into “micro-brands” is an obvious answer. But it’s less obvious how much of that brand equity benefits the paper as a whole — or if it can be made to do so any longer.
  • Journalists are keenly aware that their articles are now disseminated world-wide, that they can distribute and promote their work themselves, and that the tumult in the newspaper industry means job security is but a memory. All of this understandably pushes journalists to think of themselves as brands to be looked after, in ways they didn’t consider just a few years ago.
  • Younger journalists have grown up in public with Google, email and social media, and think very differently about where the lines are drawn between professional and personal and private and public. But they don’t make the rules just yet — nor is it obvious that their birthright as digital natives means they should.

All of this has encouraged and even pushed journalists to be more open about themselves with readers. It’s also led to a very interesting push and pull between journalists and papers, one that’s unfolding differently in different places. Like a lot of journalism today, it’s exciting and a bit dizzying — but also can be uncertain and even painful.

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