THE BLOG
12/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Let (WaPo) Reporters Really Tweet!

As you may have heard, The Washington Post has imposed new "guidelines" for Post journalists. The goal was to avoid the appearance of Post journalists "taking sides" on issues, but the result will likely be to create an environment where Post journalists only Tweet "safe" (read inane) things.

(If you've ever seen a politician's website, you know how boring it is to read something which has been scrubbed of creativity, thus guaranteeing nobody will be offended. If they are not careful, Post journalists will have similarly boring Twitter feeds).

While it is wise for the Post to be concerned about the perceptions of bias (this has, after all, contributed to the decline of old media), one can't help but see the imposition of Twitter "rules" as a step backwards for a media company seeking to compete in the new media world of the 21st century.

For one thing, the new guidelines are sure to have a chilling effect. One WaPost editor has already taken down his Twitter feed. Additionally, Twitter works best when writers are permitted to respond in real time with an honest and authentic voice, but the new rules seem to discourage that. As and media critic (and prolific Twitterer) Howard Kurtz tweeted, "Under new WP guidelines on tweeting, I will now hold forth only on the weather and dessert recipes."

The guidelines will also likely discourage a dialogue on Twitter. These rules would seem to discourage journalists from engaging in back-and-forth conversations with fans and other writers (for example, one Post journalist actually broke the Twitter guidelines by responding to a Twitter question about the guidelines.)

As a writer who frequently tweets, myself (@mattklewis), I can attest that one of the benefits of Twitter is that it essentially serves as a focus group. Want to flesh out an idea for a column tomorrow? Tweet some questions and savvy media consumers will surprise you with their intelligence (and ruthlessness). What is more, you will gain insight from people whom you might not normally encounter because of class, geography, race, or ideology.

And most media elites reside in places like New York and Washington, D.C., creating a dialogue with readers and opinion leaders with different backgrounds can only serve to dispel the sometimes myopic tendencies that have long plagued newsrooms.

One can imagine that a list of rules to comply with might well discourage writers from engaging in this sort of brainstorming and dialogue with their community. It's just too risky. This, sadly, would deprive both the readers and the writers.

The Post's move is also disheartening because there are really only a hand full of establishment media journalists who truly "get" Twitter. And, amazingly, among the few are the Post's Chris Cillizza and Howard Kurtz

Sure, lots of journalists are on Twitter now, but Cillizza and Kurtz are prolific. What is more, you get the sense that they got on it on their own. (Whereas you get the sense that some journalists were forced to embrace Twitter by their bosses -- and that staffers actually do the Tweeting -- Cillizza and Kurtz embraced the medium fairly early).

In a way this makes sense, Cillizza is a young-ish journalist who came of age in a time of email and the Internet, and Kurtz is specifically a media reporter, which might predispose him to appreciate the medium more than other traditional journalists.

So far, most of my analysis has been premised on the notion that it's not "cool" to do what the Post is doing. But aside from the public relations issues that come with being branded a "luddite," there are real dollars and cents issues at play, as well.

As dead-tree newspapers become a less important aspect of the business model, the goal becomes to drive traffic to a website to increase page views and to drive up ad impressions. As previously stated, though it should not be the primary purpose of Twitter, writers can certainly link to their columns.

Clearly, those Tweeters who are the most interesting will attract the largest number of active Twitter followers to click on those links. Though it is not an exact science, it stands to reason that maintaining a vibrant Twitter following -- which I would argue is dependent on not following the "rules" -- will lead to more site traffic.

Additionally, by being on Twitter (and engaging with other users), they increase the likelihood other prominent opinion leaders might re-tweet their tweets and link to their posts, possibly even pushing a post "viral."

So how should they have handled this? While I certainly understand the legal need for corporations to create written guidelines to govern nearly every aspect of their business operations, there is a real danger of allowing the lawyers to essentially neuter those who are attempting to -- generally on their own time -- increase the value of the company.

Certainly, the guidelines prohibiting racist or sexist content are appropriate. But as for the rest of it, I would simply put out a blanket statement saying that journalists should use the same judgment on Twitter that they use when writing anything else. I would remind them not to write anything they wouldn't want to see on the front page of the paper. And, oh yeah, anything you say can and will be used against you. But you've got to balance that with having fun and being creative. It's essentially a judgment call, and laying out these specific (and onerous) rules seems to be inviting 1). Less tweeting, and 2). Boring tweeting.

My guess is these onerous policies will be revised and loosened. However, if they stay in place, the Post may risk unilaterally disarming themselves. Moreover, they risk sidelining (or hamstringing) two of their strongest emerging resources -- just as the rest of the media world finally begins waking up to the power of this thing.