Here’s the situation: A reporter with a high-profile position in the Jerusalem bureau has been a little too free with her thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, etc.
What do you do?
A. Tell her to knock off the social media stuff.
B. Have a colleague read and critique all of her social media updates before they’re published.
C. Allow this reporter — and others — to post what they want, when they want. Professionals don’t need babysitters.
The New York Times is going with Option B.
From NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan:
… The Times is taking steps to make sure that Ms. [Jodi] Rudoren’s further social media efforts go more smoothly. The foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, is assigning an editor on the foreign desk in New York to work closely with Ms. Rudoren on her social media posts.
The idea is to capitalize on the promise of social media’s engagement with readers while not exposing The Times to a reporter’s unfiltered and unedited thoughts.
Given the spotlight that the Jerusalem bureau chief is bound to attract, and Ms. Rudoren’s self-acknowledged missteps, this was a necessary step.
The alternative would be to say, “Let’s forget about social media and just write stories.” As The Times fights for survival in the digital age, that alternative was not a good one.
My initial reaction was to rake the Times over the coals for its perpetuation of the “objectivity myth” (this perspective is shared by others). And what’s this nonsense about “not exposing The Times to a reporter’s unfiltered and unedited thoughts”? That’s naive.
But then I re-read this part:
“The alternative would be to say, ‘Let’s forget about social media and just write stories.’ As The Times fights for survival in the digital age, that alternative was not a good one.”
The Times is in a tough spot — and it’s a spot that people outside the Times (like me) don’t immediately understand.
The Times can’t give up on objectivity. Objectivity is its lifeblood.
The Times can’t give up on social media. Social media is the attention generator.
So if you can’t turn your back on the past (objectivity) or the future (social media), what do you do?
What you do is institue an editorial filter that seems ridiculous to anyone outside the organization.
And it is ridiculous. Investing someone else’s time into the social media wanderings of a colleague suggests the Times’ profit margins aren’t as narrow as we’ve been led to believe.
But what choice do they have? Think about it. If you’re not going to fire her or silence her social media efforts, what’s your recourse?
This is why knee-jerk reactions don’t work when you’re discussing real and particular moments of disruption. It’s easy for those unencumbered by the unique pressures of a specific organization (like me, again) to tell that organization how it should handle its business. “Fire her!” “Delete her Twitter account!”
Easy, right? But it’s not. Not when you inject the context of a business and a person into the conversation. This isn’t theoretical. This happened. And what are you going to do about it?
Real conversations about disruption — conversations catalyzed by specific events — are far more important and instructive than the theoretical babble that spews out of journalism conferences. These real examples show just how complicated this stuff is.
To be clear, I’m not saying the Times did the right thing here (I’d take the reporter off of social media altogether and suffer the consequences). What I’m saying is that I understand why they did what they did.
To me, that understanding is an essential part of a post-disruption mindset. I’m done with the theories and the reports and the “future of X” stuff. The real future of our media industries will be formed collectively through specific and tough decisions. This is how we learn.