Twitter Culture Wars at The Times: ‘We Need a Zone of Trust,’ Bill Keller Tells Staff

twitter new051409 Twitter Culture Wars at The Times: We Need a Zone of Trust, Bill Keller Tells StaffOn Monday, The New York Times Web chiefs held a meeting about the future of nytimes.com. They discussed several proposals being considered for the future of paid content on the Web. It was an internal meeting.

The only thing is, many of the details of the meeting were broadcast to the world after several reporters—Jennifer 8. Lee, Michael Luo and Brian Stelter—wound up putting them on their Twitter feeds. At least two other reporters, including Louise Story and Don Von Natta, wound up retweeting Ms. Lee’s posts. Gawker exuberantly posted the tweets; The Guardian wrote a story about it; and suddenly that private meeting wasn’t so private anymore.

Sources told The Observer that many people in the newsroom weren’t pleased that the meetings got the “tweetment.”

As fate would have it, the next day The Times hosted an already-scheduled education session in the Page One conference room called “How Reporters & Editors Use Twitter.”

And so began the latest culture war at The Times

At the meeting, Metro editor Jodi Rudoren said that she doesn’t believe Times staffers should be tweeting any internal news—good news, bad news, whatever.   

“To me, we were in a weird zone,” Ms. Rudoren said later in an interview with The Observer.

In the meeting, Ms. Lee said that it was a part of Twitter culture to tweet from presentations. She also made a distinction between good or innocuous internal news and bad news: she noted that she did not tweet about the recent round of pay cuts at the Times, but she did tweet about Times Pulitzer winners.

It seems like the culture of Twitter is not an easy match for the stentorian culture of The Times.

Yesterday, Bill Keller hosted his semi-annual state of the newsroom address (known internally and informally as “Throw Stuff at Bill”). Mr. Keller opened his meetings this way:

Before we get going, I’m going to say something I perhaps should have said Monday, when we did our digital update in this auditorium. It’s important that we be as open as possible with one another about things going on inside The Times. But the level of candor is likely to be diminished if people are Twittering fragments of the conversation to the outside world. We need a zone of trust, where people can say what’s on their minds without fear of having an unscripted remark or a partially baked idea zapped into cyberspace. Think of it as common courtesy. You wouldn’t Twitter something you overheard at the coffee cart without asking. You wouldn’t Twitter the Page One meeting (although it would probably get you thousands of followers.) So I’d be grateful if you would lay down your Blackberries and iPhones, and treat this as a conversation among colleagues.

That statement was met with spontaneous applause almost as intense as at the State of the Union address. Meanwhile, some staffers remained defiantly silent. 

Then Ms. Rudoren asked a question about the uses of Twitter—should it be used to tweet stories? To tweet breakfast?

Mr. Keller said that his opinion was still evolving—he just started his own Twitter, after all—and that policies on employee tweeting should match the policies already in place about what employees may talk about in television appearances and in public speeches. That is, don’t share political preferences. Consider whatever you say as something that is representative of the entire institution.

He did acclaim Twitter’s value for reporting, and singled out Sewell Chan, Brian Stelter and (new copy chief!) Patrick LaForge’s use of Twitter, to find stories and sources.

“Inside the newsroom we’re learning lessons about what’s appropriate and inappropriate,” Times televsion reporter Brian Stelter told The Observer in an interview. He tweeted only once during the Monday session. “I think what we should be talking about and what we’re actively talking about are the broader benefits Twitter has for journalism and how it can improve our work in subtle ways.”

“What I posted on Monday was a mistake,” he added. “But I think that has to be viewed within the thousands of posts I’ve made.”

“When you’re in an internal meeting that is not public where you’re discussing policy, you would no more Twitter it than pick up the cell phone or call up one of your friends and say, ‘Hey you’ll never believe what Bill Keller just said!” Craig Whitney, The Times‘ standards editor, told The Observer. “That strikes me as common sense. The problem on Monday is that, inadvertently, that no one asked, ‘Please keep this amongst ourselves.’”

The Times is hardly the only institution to grapple with Twitter: The Wall Street Journal’s latest “code of professional conduct” provides guidelines for the use of Twitter and other online platforms in use by its staff.

Not incidentally, Jeff Jarvis, Times Sunday business editor Tim O’Brien and The Journal‘s digital editor Alan Murray are having a debate about Twitter live right now (on Twitter, of course).

In any event, we asked Mr. Whitney to send us the paper’s Twitter ethics policy. He said that it’s part of the Facebook ethics guide that was produced last fall. In passing, the policy mentions Twitter. He said it’s not likely that there will be a Twitter-only policy developed. This is the one they’ll go with:

USING ‘FACEBOOK’ IN REPORTING

Facebook and other social networking sites  — MySpace, LinkedIn, even Twitter — can be remarkably useful reporting tools, as the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 proved.  As we’ve discovered from the experts on our staff, Facebook pages often tell a lot about a person’s work, interests, friends, and thoughts, and, as one page leads or links to another, Facebook can help reporters do triangulation on difficult-to-research subjects.  What people write on Facebook sites is publicly available information, like anything posted on any site that is not encrypted.
But there are a few things to be careful about, nonetheless.

One of them is that outsiders can read your Facebook page, and that personal blogs and “tweets” represent you to the outside world just as much as an 800-word article does.  If you have or are getting a Facebook page, leave blank the section that asks about your political views, in accordance with the Ethical Journalism admonition to do nothing that might cast doubt on your or The Times’s political impartiality in reporting the news.  Remember that although you might get useful leads by joining a group on one of these sites, it will appear on your page, connoting that you “joined” it — potentially complicated if it is a political group, or a controversial group.

Be careful not to write anything on a blog or a personal Web page that you could not write in The Times — don’t editorialize, for instance, if you work for the News Department.  Anything you post online can and might be publicly disseminated, and can be twisted to be used against you by those who wish you or The Times ill — whether it’s text, photographs, or video. That includes things you recommend on TimesPeople or articles you post to Facebook and Digg, content you share with friends on MySpace, and articles you recommend through TimesPeople.  It can also include things posted by outside parties to your Facebook page, so keep an eye on what appears there.  Just remember that we are always under scrutiny by magnifying glass and that the possibilities of digital distortion are virtually unlimited, so always ask yourself, could this be deliberately misconstrued or misunderstood by somebody who wants to make me look bad?   

Another problem worth thinking about is how careful to be about Facebook “friends.”  Can we write about someone who is a “friend?” 
The answer depends on whether a “friend” is really a friend.  In general, being a “friend” of someone on Facebook is almost meaningless and does not signify the kind of relationship that could pose a conflict of interest for a reporter or editor writing about that person.  But if a “friend” is really a personal friend, it would.

Should we avoid consenting to be Facebook “friends” of people in the news we cover?  Mostly no, but the answer can depend on the situation. A useful way to think about this is to imagine whether public disclosure of a “friend” could somehow turn out to be an embarrassment that casts doubt on our impartiality. It would not have looked good in the presidential election campaign for a national political reporter to agree to be a “friend” of Barack Obama without first making sure to be  a “friend” of John McCain, too.  A City Hall reporter or a politics editor might be “friends” with several different City Council members as well as the Mayor, but not just with one of them.  But a reporter or editor whose work has nothing to do with City Hall could be “friends” with people who work there with no conflict of interest.  Consult with the Standards Editor if there’s any doubt.

Reporters can ask questions by e-mail using addresses found on Facebook, of course, but the same rules that apply to telephone contacts (or personal contacts) apply.  “The Times treats news sources just as fairly and openly as it treats readers,” Ethical Journalism says.  “We do not inquire pointlessly into someone’s personal life.”  Approaching minors by e-mail or by telephone, or in person, to ask about their or their parents’ private lives or friends is a particularly sensitive area.  Depending on the circumstances, it may not be advisable. In every case, reporters and editors should first consult with the Standards Editor before going ahead with such inquiries.