Washington Post tries to force divorce with Twitter, social media

Those of us who believe in the social media revolution have been crying foul all day long about this Washington Post ombud blog that basically forbids its member journalists from posting any type of opinion. I suppose under this policy, a tweet that reads “I am having a sandwhich” may actually be OK. That is, until the salad makers of America read it and get upset that a WashPo reporter would dare pick a sandwhich over a salad.

There are so many things wrong with this new policy, I need a bullet list to sort them all:

  • As stated in the blog, the Post has been working on this new internal policy for a while. So far, the Post has yet to post (pun intended) this policy publically. If you have a link, please leave it in the comments. In fairness, it could just be that the ombud blog jumped the gun and the full policy will be posted soon. At least, I hope so.
  • The Post is making a firm statement about objectivity: That it will continue to be business as usual in terms of news coverage. For a newspaper that seemed to be at the forefront of pioneering new ways of delivering news, falling back into the objectivity rut is nothing but disappointment. Honorary Geek Jeremy Littau puts it so well: “Many, including myself, have come to see the objectivity norm in journalism to be an impossible standard and unproductive frame by which to judge news.”
  • Thirdly, doesn’t it feel a little bit like the WashPo is tucking tail rather than rising above partisan bickering? From the ombud column: “In today’s hyper-sensitive political environment, Narisetti’s tweets could be seen as one of The Post’s top editors taking sides on the question of whether a health-care reform plan must be budget neutral.” Translation: “We don’t want the partisans picking on us.”

Talk about gutless. Especially from a paper that, after decades of First Amendment battles inside and out of the Beltway, seems uncharacteristically caught up in not pissing anybody off.

Academics like Littau and Jay Rosen have already picked this bone clean in terms of what it means to transparency and taking advantage of new media. I’d like to hypothesize for a moment that this was a business decision, and a really bad one at that.

Before anyone could become a publisher with just an Internet connection and a few ideas, newspapers ruled the media in terms of its monopoly on the published word (note I didn’t say “printed.”) Because it was a mass medium serving an entire community, objectivity was adhered to so that the paper could serve all within the community. Ideally, that meant lots of money in ads and subscriptions.

Is that what the suits in the WashPo offices have going on here? Don’t make waves, ride on the Post’s longtime reputation and hope the world suddenly falls in love with newspapers again?

If that’s the case, the suits should try investing in asbestos, too.

C’mon, can the Post really believe that the old standard of objectivity is a good model for journalism in theory or in practice? We’ve seen circulation spiral, great newspapers go out of business and hundreds of thousands of us have lost our jobs. And we’re sticking to the same business model why?

Fox News makes no apologies for being the “conservatives’ network.” Fox News also stomps its competitors in the ratings. Now granted, they do that with a healthy dose of bullshit and paranoia (i.e. Glen Beck), but the basic premise of telling the news from a particular point of view has been a solid business model.

So what if we took the Fox News model, but did it better (and more ethically)? What if we engaged our audience with language they’re comfortable with instead of sticking to lifeless, bureacratic words that help us maintain this fraud of objectivity? What if we offered thoughtful viewpoints and analysis from all angles, so readers could actually feel like we reported and they decided?

Here’s my full disclosure on this social media topic: I’m a huge fan of social media and of finding new ways to engage readers and keep our livelihood going. Yes, I wish for the romanticized days of Woodward and Bernstein, when reading the newspaper was almost a civic duty. But those days are gone, and given the way young people don’t read newspapers these days, they ain’t coming back.

Some can look at that last graf and say I just ruined any hope of ever working for the Post. Or you can get an idea of what my values are as a person, then make a decision for yourself whether or not I’m capable of being fair on a particular topic.

So, you tell me: How did I do here? Am I fair in my criticism, or should I take a flying leap?

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