Newspapers and Social Media: Still Not Really Getting It

Many traditional media entities have embraced social-media services like Twitter and Facebook and blogs — at least to some extent — as tools for reporting and journalism, using them to publish and curate news reports. But newspapers in particular seem to have a hard time accepting the “social” part of these tools, at least when it comes to letting their journalists engage with readers as human beings. A case in point is the new social-media policy introduced at a major newspaper in Canada, which tells its staff not to express personal opinions — even on their personal accounts or pages — and not to engage with readers in the comments.

The policy, which I received from a source close to the Toronto Star, has a number of sensible things to say about using social media, including the fact that these tools “can be valuable sources for story ideas and contacts for journalists, and as a means of connecting directly with the communities we cover.” The paper also says that it “encourages journalists – reporters, columnists, photographers and editors – to take advantage of social media tools in their daily work.” But it warns that any comments posted using such tools “can be circulated beyond their intended audience.”

This all makes perfect sense. Social media is useful for journalism, and it does connect reporters to the communities they cover — better than just about anything else does. And yes, it is wise to be aware of the unintended consequences of even offhand remarks.

No talking about what you do

Then comes the part about being impartial and objective, and that’s when the trouble starts. The policy says that reporters and editors should “never post information on social media that could undermine your credibility with the public or damage the Star’s reputation in any way, including as an impartial source of news.” And that’s not all — the document goes on to say that:

Anything published on social media – whether on Star sites or personal platforms – cannot reveal information about content in development, newsroom issues or Star sources. Negative commentary about your colleagues or workplace will not be tolerated.

In other words, no posting about stories that are being worked on, no comments on newsroom-related topics, no talking about people who might be used or are being used as sources for Star reporting. And this prohibition doesn’t just apply to Star accounts or services under the newspaper’s name — it applies to any comments that a reporter or editor might make on their own personal accounts as well. Obviously the paper doesn’t want staffers bad-mouthing each other or talking about sensitive internal issues (something the New York Times also confronted last year), but a blanket ban on anything related to content seems unnecessarily harsh, not to mention completely unrealistic.

Never talk to your readers

It gets worse. The policy goes on to say that journalists who report for the Star “should not editorialize on the topics they cover,” because readers could could construe this as evidence that their news reporting is biased — and then tells reporters and editors that they shouldn’t respond in the online comments on stories. It says:

As well, journalists should refrain from debating issues within the Star’s online comments forum to avoid any suggestion that they may be biased in their reporting.

This last prohibition is a classic case of missing the point completely. According to the Star, apparently, comments on news stories are something that exists to allow readers to talk amongst themselves, not something that a reporter or editor should get involved in. That’s just wrong. As someone who was intimately involved in social-media strategy for another major metropolitan newspaper in Canada (full disclosure: this paper competes with the Toronto Star to some extent), one of the main features of having comments is the ability for readers to interact with writers and editors at the paper.

Treating the comments section as something that journalists shouldn’t get involved in turns it into a ghetto, and also contributes to the problems that many newspapers have with flaming and trolls and other issues — why should anyone behave properly in a comment forum if none of the staff at the paper are going to bother getting involved?

Never express an opinion on anything

The Star is far from alone in this short-sighted approach. Apart from a few staffers here and there who make use of Twitter and other social media, most major newspapers have still failed to take advantage of these tools when it comes to building relationships between their writers and readers. The biggest single factor holding them back seems to be fear — namely, a fear that they will no longer be seen as objective, something NYT executive editor Bill Keller reinforced in a recent column, in which he suggested that the paper was one of the few remaining holdouts in a world where everyone feels free to state their opinion.

Here’s a news flash for Bill, and for the rest of the newspaper world: that particular genie is already out of the bottle and has been for some time now. As journalism professor Jay Rosen has argued, the “view from nowhere” that mainstream media continues to try and defend is not only dying, but arguably does readers a disservice — since it often distorts the news in order to maintain a perfectly balanced (and unrealistic) view of events. Some journalists, like ** in a recent column in The Atlantic, have started to admit that they have personal interests and causes, but that remains rare.

The point that newspapers and other traditional media are missing is that social media is powerful precisely because it is personal. If you remove the personal aspect, all you have is a glorified news release wire or RSS feed with links to your content — and that has very little power any more. The best way to make social media work is to allow reporters and editors to be themselves, to be human, and to engage with readers through Twitter and Facebook and comments and blogs.

Is there a risk that someone might say something wrong? Of course there is. But without that human touch, there is no point in doing it at all.

Update: Toronto Star spokesman Bob Hepburn got back to me and said that the paper’s policy was “well in line with what mainstream media organizations have always done. We’ve always placed some limitations on journalists in terms of them expressing their opinions, either in the newspaper or outside of the newspaper.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user World Economic Forum

Facebook: Hey, We’re a Great Tool for Journalists Too!

Does Facebook have a little Twitter envy? The smaller of the two social-media tools has become virtually synonymous with journalism — thanks in part to the fact that it is more of an information network than a social network, and to the example set by journalists such as the NPR’s Andy Carvin in how to use it for journalism. Now Facebook seems to be trying to reach out to the media industry by offering more resources for journalists, including a dedicated page that the giant social network launched Tuesday.

The Facebook page says that it plans to become an ongoing resource for journalists who want to figure out the best ways to use the network as part of their jobs, and will be highlighting “best practices” engaged in by a number of media outlets and reporters who use it well. The blog post announcing the launch of the page also points out that Facebook has been helping media companies become more social for the past year or so by integrating plugins and “like” buttons as well, which the social network says has produced “a greater than 300% increase in referral traffic from Facebook” on average.

Although it is a much smaller service in terms of the overall number of users (how much smaller exactly remains a matter of some debate), Twitter seems to have realized relatively early on that it is a perfect tool for journalists — both the professional kind and the amateur kind. This became fairly obvious even before the recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, during news events such as the Hudson River plane landing in 2009 and the Haiti earthquake last year. And Twitter has been working to capitalize on that for some time.

The service has had a media page that shares best practices — including lessons on how to think about hashtags — for almost a year now, and has a media team that includes Chloe Sladden — who was featured on the cover of Fast Company magazine recently — and well-regarded writer and blogger Robin Sloan. Among other things, the team has talked regularly at conferences (including GigaOM’s NewTeeVee Live) and elsewhere about how Twitter can be used to amplify and extend the reach of media events such as the Academy Awards.

The one thing that Facebook has going for it over Twitter, of course, is sheer reach. Over half a billion people go to the site daily, and millions more interact with Facebook content via its open-graph plugins and “like” buttons. News sites such as The Huffington Post have made great use of this kind of integration to drive engagement and traffic, and Facebook is clearly pushing this idea as part of its latest launch. Things like hosting a live address by President Obama will probably help as well.

There are also some great examples of journalists using Facebook, including New York Times writer Nicolas Kristof, who has been posting to his page from the Middle East and elsewhere, and is perhaps one of the most engaged mainstream journalists I know of. His page has 200,000 fans, and he routinely gets hundreds of comments on the things he posts, which in some cases appear only on Facebook. NPR under Andy Carvin has also made great use of Facebook, as I described in a recent post.

Those examples aside, however, the challenge for Facebook is that while Twitter seems perfectly designed to be a real-time news and information network, many users still likely think of Facebook as a place to socialize rather than be informed — a place to play games, or look at funny pictures and videos, but not necessarily a place where journalists are active. Those things may not be mutually exclusive, but it’s going to take some work to make them feel like they belong together.

Our Favorite Pranks, Jests, Japes and Tomfoolery

Why do people like to fool each other — or at least try to — on the first day of April? No one really knows for sure, but it’s one of the most enduring unofficial holidays of modern times, celebrated (or in some cases, barely tolerated) in dozens of countries around the world. And for whatever reason, the technology world is even more fond of this holiday than probably any other. In this post, we’ve collected some of our favorite pranks and bogus news stories from today for your amusement — if you come across any that you particularly enjoyed, feel free to add them in the comments.

But before we get started, it’s worth noting that one of the biggest April Fool’s jokes of all time might be the day itself — no one can seem to agree on how or why it became popular. One theory is that it started with the change to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, which moved New Year’s Day from the last week of March to January. Those who continued to celebrate in March (a celebration that usually lasted until April 1) were called April Fool’s. The only problem is that there are references to the idea of April and fools that pre-date the change to the Gregorian calendar.

Another theory is that it started with the Persian tradition of playing pranks on people on the 15th day of the New Year’s celebration of Norouz, which usually falls on April 1st and is known as Sizdah Bedar. This tradition apparently goes back to 536 B.C. And to make things extra confusing, plenty of countries celebrate something like April Fool’s on other days — like the 28th of December (if you want to see what April Fool was like in 1861 in the United States, check out this fascinating post from the NYT).

And now, on to the monkeyshines, drollery and shenanigans:

  • Hulu Time Travel: points for effort goes to Hulu, which set up a complete homepage as the service would have appeared in the 1990s, complete with links to actual episodes of Newsradio, Kids In The Hall, 21 Jump Street and other shows — and featuring a modem-connecting noise when you click to watch. Well played, Hulu.
  • Gmail Motion: the web giant says it is launching a Kinect-style interface to its email service that will let people navigate with physical gestures — the video with this one is worth watching, if only for the guy who gets to illustrate the movements (according to a blog post, Google is also changing all of its sites and services to Comic Sans, the most hated font ever invented).
  • The PlayMobil Apple Store: the gadget and gift site ThinkGeek has become a staple of April Fool’s for nerds, in part because its fake products are so perfectly believable — and this year it’s a PlayMobil replica of the Apple Store. Fake items from previous years have become so popular that the site has actually produced them as real products, included the TaunTaun Sleeping Bag and others listed here.
  • ShopSavvy Becomes GreyScale: poking fun at the recent blockbuster financing — and associated controversy — by the iPhone photo-sharing app Color, this is a nice touch from ShopSavvy: the tagline for the new service GreyScale is “share photos — with no one.” But will Color think it’s funny?
  • HuffPo’s Pay Wall — Just For the NYT: Some April Fool’s pranks have a kind of edge to them, and this new pay wall just for New York Times employees has that feel to it: not only is it a poke at the NYT pay plan, but a jab at the paper that has slammed Huffington for aggregating its content (bonus points to Arianna for testing the new feature in Winnipeg). The special terms of the paywall — all links from Facebook are free, provided they lead to stories about animals with extra limbs — are also hilarious.
  • LinkedIn Recommends Robin Hood: the best April Fool’s jokes are ones that play on the core features of a service, and LinkedIn has done a pretty — and, unlike many other pranks, subtle — job with its “you may know” feature today, which suggests people like Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg (“this may be Werner Heisenberg’s profile”) and Robin Hood (“activist, chief fundraiser at Nottingham”).

(screenshot courtesy of Dan Hocking)

  • Seth Godin Introduces Whitespace Ads: points for creativity should go to marketing blogger and author Seth Godin, who announced the launch of a new advertising vehicle that will use the white space in between paragraphs for links that will be highly targeted, location-based and unobtrusive — mostly because they will be invisible.
  • Flattr Partners With North Korea: for true geek cred, you can’t get any better than a donation service started by one of the founders of The Pirate Bay — “brokep” describes how Flattr is going to be used by North Korea to manage the entire economy. Knowing North Korea, this isn’t really that far-fetched.
  • Mozilla Launches “Do Not Fool” Standard: this one is so meta that it hurts: Mozilla has a browser header that allows you to automatically inform websites that you do not want to be fooled — a play on the “Do Not Track” header proposal for privacy protection from advertisers. Going to install this one now.

If geekish pranks are your thing, the site Hacker News is collecting them — including a new product that acts like AdBlock does in the web world, but in real life: a pair of goggles that automatically remove advertising from whatever you are looking at. And even Wikipedia has gotten into the April Fool’s Day game — but what appear to be fake articles are actually links to factual information that isn’t really what it seems, like the fact that Batman is half female.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Mykl Roventine