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Why Reporters Should Twitter (A Little Shop Talk)

(Note: The following entry is a lot of inside baseball, some of which might count as "inside baseball, played at night with the lights out." If discussions of journalistic ethics bore you, please skip back to Friday's entry about MMS on the iPhone or commiserate with Dan Steinberg about the woeful state of the Redskins.)

On Friday, management here sent around a memo outlining how reporters should conduct themselves on Twitter, Facebook and other social-media sites. I read it as nothing more than "don't do something that will make reasonable people think you're biased" -- something that should be the Prime Directive for any reporter who wants to gain a reader's trust -- and "don't air the newsroom's dirty laundry in public" -- fairly obvious advice in most organizations -- and so didn't think much of it.

For what it's worth, my colleague Howard Kurtz had the same interpretation, Twittering that "I always assumed you shouldn't tweet anything you wouldn't say in print or on the air."

Well, that shows you what I know. That memo -- we've yet to post it on our own site, but you can read the whole thing in Staci Kramer's disapproving analysis on -- has since ricocheted around the parts of the Web where people discuss The Future Of Journalism, and we're getting pounded out there.

To cite two of the more thoughtful critiques: Longtime journalist Steve Buttry, who's leading the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette's Web transformation, warned that they reflected "an outdated culture of control, rather than the social media culture of transparency"; at the New York Times, David Carr allowed that this policy contained good ideas but worried about its proscriptive tone: "if you can't trust the women and men who put out your newspaper to use their keyboards wisely regardless of platform, what are they doing working for you?"

For an in-house, non-management perspective about these policies, see this post by our ombudsman Andy Alexander.

I'll leave it to people above my pay grade to speak in more detail about these guidelines -- though I will note that issuing some sort of guidance to reporters about social media makes a lot of sense. Instead, as one of The Post's more-tenured Twits, I'd rather talk about why reporters' use of social media -- here or anywhere else -- helps them do their job.

Short answer: It's not about looking cool and wired.

To me, it's first about making the conversation with readers more efficient. If one reader asks you a question about an article -- where'd this fact come from? what about this angle? have you checked out this related story? -- in e-mail, only that reader will gain any insight from your reply. But if you share an answer in public -- on a blog, in a comment on a blog, in a Web forum or Web chat, on Twitter, or any other place that will be indexed by the Web search engines -- other readers can benefit from your answer.

Further, you can use social media to talk with readers before you write a story. If you look at my own Twitter feed, you'll see that a big chunk of my posts consist of queries along the line of "has anybody seen X happen with Y installed?" or "anybody have a tip for how to make A do B?"

Another large portion of my Twittering -- and the posts on my public Facebook page -- consists of little observations that, pre-social media, would have been confined to my own notes or, at best, comments in individual e-mails. Now I can throw something out there and see whether readers respond to it or not -- the phrase I most often use to describe my Twitter use is "public notebook."

I also am happy to link to stories from other papers and blogs that shed more light on topics I've covered and am honored to have other journalists return the favor. For that matter, I also routinely link out to sources in my print work (if you've only been reading my column in paper, please check it out on the Web sometime).

Along the way, the sum of this output may help give readers a better sense of who I am as a person and where I'm coming from when I cover a given topic. For the same reason, I've used my blog to talk about my investments and computer and telecom use, and the paper has set up a profile page for me that points to my LinkedIn bio and public Facebook page and reveals a few other biographical tidbits.

That brings me to the last, self-interested angle: Using Twitter and Facebook smartly can drive traffic to your own work by tipping off people who don't have your site bookmarked.

As a columnist, I have the advantage of already being paid to inflict my opinion on you all -- I'm still supposed to be fair, but I'm expected to include my value judgments on things. But I think just about any beat reporter can do their job a little better with effective use of social media.

Sure, there's a risk of self-induced damage to our credibility from an ill-thought-out update. But let's not act like that risk only exists when we log onto Facebook or Twitter: When anybody and everybody has a cameraphone that can record and share a clip of your out-of-office banter, we all run that risk every time we step out the door. (Plus, our e-mails to readers can be forwarded at will.) At a certain point, we can only trust readers to recognize us as sentient human beings that do think about the things we cover. We, in turn, need to remember that this business provides the luxury of a job description so simple and easily followed that it only runs three words: Tell the truth.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 28, 2009; 1:09 PM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen  
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It is this kind of stuff that makes me believe Twitter and Facebook are more than just toys for the overconnected and that they are important, legitimate business tools. In fact, I believe that if the Twitter business model fails, corporations will chip in to save it and keep it alive.

Posted by: slar | September 28, 2009 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Frankly, the supposed "nobility" of the journalistic trade is overrated. We all have opinions, we all bring them to our work, we all filter our writings through these opinions, and some of us try to keep our reportorial writing separate from our other work. Let the Tweeters alone! Those of us on the other side of the newspaper (Tweet, Blog, etc.) are, or should be able to segregate the chaff from the Twheat.

Posted by: Geezer4 | September 29, 2009 8:51 AM | Report abuse

Twitter is part of a balanced journalistic diet, it supplies a quick check of what's happening now (albeit one that is easily skewed and has a short shelf life). My company has built a tool that lets you see who's tweeting links to your stories, which creates another way for you to engage your readers. Ultimately. writers who see their craft as a unilateral channel for their thoughts won't like or use Twitter, writers who crave dialog will.

Posted by: ronk1 | September 29, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

The Twitter business model (whatever that might be) could very well fail: according to a Bloomberg reporter last week they have yet to figure out how to generate revenue.

For my part, I find it boring to follow half a conversation on Twitter, which is how most people seem to use it. Its stated purpose of answering that one question of "What are you doing?" seems lost on most of its users. Most people just talk to each other via their Tweets. Yawn.

Posted by: BoteMan | September 29, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

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