Wall Street Journal ‘rules’ fail to capture the value of social media

Updated: Be sure to check the links at bottom of post to other voices on this issue.

This is an open letter to the Dow Jones and Co. in response to the rules it released to its staff at The Wall Street Journal and its other publications on how to use — or not use — Twitter and Facebook and other social media.

Dear Dow Jones Wall Street Journal and Co.:

I understand that these newfangled social media sites fly in the face of many of our traditional journalistic ideas. In fact, that’s one of the values in my mind to social media — it allows journalists to connect with their readers, sources and potential readers in ways they never could before. I’m saddened by many of your rules, and I feel these rules could lead your publication to miss out on many of the benefits of social media.

Let me explain rule by rule, based on the list published online by Editor and Publisher. In the interest of clarity, I’ll put the rules in bold and my reaction in italics.

Never misrepresent yourself using a false name when you’re acting on behalf of your Dow Jones publication or service. When soliciting information from readers and interview subjects you must identify yourself as a reporter for the Journal, Newswires or MarketWatch and be tonally neutral in your questions. This one seems fine to me. Reporters shouldn’t pretend to be someone else in any situation, including when using social media. So far, so good.

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. Agree with the first sentence; journalists should base observations on fact. But prohibiting staffers from sharing any personal opinion really limits their ability to use social networks. The idea of social media is to connect with others and connect as a full human being, with a personality. I can see how expressing a political point of view or an opinion on a news story one is writing would be a problem. But any personal opinion? That sentences your staffers to be the most boring people on Twitter or Facebook. Twitter is basically virtual chit-chat; to chat you must express some time of opinion.

Don’t recruit friends or family to promote or defend your work. Sorry, can’t agree with this one. Sure, you shouldn’t use social media to promote a personal agenda, but creating any type of conversation about topics in the news encourages a free flow of ideas that can only be good for journalism. I say more the ideas, the better.

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. Well, I wouldn’t recommend friending confidential sources because that could open the gates to the source no longer being confidential. But most sources aren’t confidential. Friending sources can enrich your social media experience by giving you an easy way to find out what they think, what stories they’d like to see your publication write and to understand how they see the world. All that will help you serve your readers better and expand your readership. If the worry is the competition might steal your sources, so be it. Openness fosters conversation, and that will help your publication to understand your readers better. Why risk losing that amazing benefit of social media? Plus, your competition is likely on Twitter, Facebook and other social media, so they’ll get the benefits that you’ve lost. This is no bash on editors; certainly they should be involved in the social media aspect of reporters’ jobs. But if you make a process like using social media too cumbersome, no one will use it.

Let our coverage speak for itself, and don’t detail how an article was reported, written or edited. OK, I agree that Twitter isn’t the place to explain that your editor re-wrote your lead on deadline and made it wrong or that you didn’t have time to fully understand a report you were writing about so your story was inaccurate. In fact, in general bashing people or decisions of your employer on Twitter is a bad idea. But this hard-and-fast rule would prohibit reporters from helping readers understand the newspaper better, and increasing readers’ understanding can only be a good thing. For example, my newspaper recently started a special section on its Web site just for readers of some of the suburbs we cover.  A reader  who lives in aother part of town asked me on Twitter when this neat new stuff would be coming to his community. I was able to explain to him in a positive way that if the project works,  his town may get it, too. Isn’t that better than leaving a reader angry because he feels his community is being excluded for no reason?

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. Again, I see the kernel of truth. You don’t want to tip off the competition or share secrets. But wouldn’t readers feel more connected to your product, which is meant to serve them, if they were included a bit. The Baltimore Sun, for example, live-streams its daily news meetings. I don’t live in Baltimore, but I found it fascinating that they consider readers part of the team in a sense, rather than an “other” who should be feared.  Sure, there’s a need for caution on certain topics, but involving readers when appropriate can pay off by bridging the traditional gap some readers feel from the almighty journalists.

Don’t disparage the work of colleagues or competitors or aggressively promote your coverage. Agree with the first part — bashing anyone, particularly colleagues or competitors, is just bad form. But what’s wrong with promoting your coverage. One of the great benefits of Twitter, Facebook, other social media is you can link to your blog or story and let others who might be interested know about it. It seems without that ability social media becomes somewhat pointless, and you limit your audience to those who already read you or happened upon you in a Google search.

Don’t engage in any impolite dialogue with those who may challenge your work — no matter how rude or provocative they may seem. Can’t argue with this one. Again, bad form.

Avoid giving highly-tailored, specific advice to any individual on Dow Jones sites. Phrases such as “Travel agents are saying the best deals are X and Y…” are acceptable while counseling a reader “You should choose X…” is not. Giving generalized advice is the best approach. No problem with this one either, although to me this depends a lot on one’s beat. If you cover health, sure, you don’t want to suggest, as Vice President Joe Biden did, that people should stay out of crowded spaces, such as planes or subways, for fear of the swine flu. But I cover parenting and often offer advice on topics, such as play date etiquette. I think it bolsters my relationship with my readers and portrays me as a real person, just like them. Even less personal beats could be fair game for making suggestions to readers. Might the traffic reporter tweet the best route home to avoid construction delays? Or couldn’t the books writer post a link on Facebook to her favorites tomes.  Again, be cautious and smart, but not afraid.

All postings on Dow Jones sites that may be controversial or that deal with sensitive subjects need to be cleared with your editor before posting. To me, this depends on your definition of controversial. That’s so broad, it could cover almost anything. News by its nature is controversial. I’m not against editing here, but I do think that blogs particularly need to be immediate. It seems this might clog-up the works, but maybe the WSJ has so many editors that this wouldn’t bog them down.  Good conversations about how to handle controversial or sensitive subjects are always a plus in my book, but I also believe a publication should have a large dose of trust in the judgment of its staffers or why did you hire them?

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. Glad you added that part about “common sense,” but really how can you not mix business and pleasure on Twitter. It’s a conversation. People follow you because they like you or they’re interested in your topic area. If you want to connect with people on Twitter you need to come across as a human being, who jokes around, who tweets a favorite song, who complains about the weather. Nobody wants to follow a robot. And that’s not connecting; that’s broadcasting. I’d say 90 percent of my tweets are work-related (tweeting a blog post or story or link from my newspaper’s Web site), but the rest are just life (sitting at my son’s Little League game in the rain; wow, I’m starving, can’t wait for lunch). Does that hurt me as a journalist? I don’t think so. I think it helps my readers know me, and that can only be a good thing.

WSJ, See you on Twitter (or not).

What do you think of the WSJ rules? Have I missed something — or missed the mark? Post a comment. (And if you like what you’re reading, subscribe.)


Edit: 9:56 p.m. May 13. A reader on Twitter noted that I should have addressed my letter to Dow Jones and Co., not The Wall Street Journal and Co. Good, point, so I’ve changed it. I also tweaked the first graph to reflect the reader’s concern. Did keep my headline the same, though, because in the discussions of the “rules” on Twitter today it seems many are calling the rules “The Wall Street Journal rules.” The Wall Street Journal is the flagship people associate with Dow Jones. Plus, that’s how Editor and Publisher describes the rules, so I think the average reader identifies them with WSJ.

Edit: 8:01p.m. May 14: More on the “rules”:

  • Jeff Jarvis:  WSJ rules are “missing the point” of social media.
  • Steve Buttry:  Comments on the rules and offers links to others who have had their say as well; explained he had consulted with WSJ on social media; and posted a response from WSJ to his earlier post. All of this is great reading.
  • Mathew Ingram:  “The idea that you can maintain a strict division between the personal and professional just doesn’t jibe with the way social networks (or human beings) operate.”
  • Patrick Thronton:  “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.”  He suggests a good list of how social media should be used.

25 thoughts on “Wall Street Journal ‘rules’ fail to capture the value of social media

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Wall Street Journal’s rules for staff using social media « Transforming the Gaz

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  4. Many of these rules strike me as speaking to the very proscribed rules of deportment and documentation vis a vis libel law. A National/International journal creating original reporting of business matters has a greater exposure to libel actions and therefore must govern itself accordingly.

    As an example, how far would the legendary Woodward & Bernstein have gotten if all their communication with their source read like this: @deepthroat So you’re saying they were taking instructions from the highest level?How high?
    Or, try this one: @johndean Thanx for detailed list of operatives.Will keep your name out of it.

    Actually, this is sort of a fun idea. Historical events as played out in a Twitterfeed.

  5. Thanks for taking this on point by point and keeping an even tone. Some of the criticism of the new policy has been way over the top, in my view. I do think it’s important to recognize, as you have, why a news organization might want to have some rules for its staff (although I prefer guidelines that allow for some flexibility). And I completely agree with your take on this one: “Let our coverage speak for itself, and don’t detail how an article was reported, written or edited.” News organizations that lift the curtain and are more transparent about how and why they do what they do will build trust and credibility. And using social media for this purpose shouldn’t be outlawed, it should be encouraged.

  6. @Joe in ATL

    Yes, I do suspect lawyers were involved in the rules (nothing against lawyers, mind you.). However, I do think you can connect with readers through Twitter, Facebook etc. without risking libel. At least, I hope so, or I’m in a lot of trouble.

    Love your Woodward and Bernstein example, which I’m assuming is tongue and cheek. Don’t think anyone is suggesting transparency on that type of confidential story. But I do believe for most reporters there are plenty of opportunities where conversing with readers has value.

    Thanks for adding to this conversation.

    – Gina

  7. @Deborah Potter

    Thanks. Yes, there is a value in having some type of guideline for reporters/editors on social media because its opens so many opportunities. I hope, though, as you say, flexibility will win out over rigidity.

    – Gina

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  13. In the near future social policy of mass-media will be reconsidered by the state. There are main recesses of social mass media.

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  20. IMO, there’s just too much room for problems if they allowed Twitter usage.. People say dumb stuff all the time and stuff that can get them in trouble.. it’s just better as a company to stay away from that..

  21. When most people think of websites like Facebook, or MySpace they most likely think of teenagers partaking in a modern electronic version of the old “Pen Pal” craze of the 1960′s. But the fact is, Social Media is the future of Advertising! A good example of this is “The Phone Book” This is a Dead Book Walking to advertise in for small businesses today because very few people refer to it. When small business and big business for that matter, start to understand that their ad dollars can get a much, much better ROI from Social Media, there will be a sea change in Advertising.

  22. Thank you for the very impressive post about the Wall Street Journal and social media. Your post delivered a bunch of fascinating points that I have not considered. Places like Facebook and other social media sites is the future of advertising in my opinion. I am looking forward to reading more of your website in the future.

  23. I agree with your point of view and these rules are way to hard. It’s great food for though to see how big companies like this can be off the track something, always hungry for more profit, but not really doing the right things to say up to date.

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