Social Media Rules For Journalists

The WSJ gave its journalists some rules about conduct in social media this week according to Editor and Publisher.

Most of them are good common sense rules for everyone using social media. But there are several that I think are wrong and should be rethought. Here are four "rules" that I think should be reconsidered and why.

Consult your editor before "connecting" to or "friending" any reporting
contacts who may need to be treated as confidential sources. Openly
"friending" sources is akin to publicly publishing your Rolodex.
>> Most journalists are going to have hundreds to thousands of "friends" in social media. And that is how it should be. We are all putting our rolodexes out there into the public domain. That's one of the trades you make with social media. You publish your social graph in return for getting the power that comes from doing that. And it is not going to be clear who your sources were on a particular story from a list of hundreds to thousands of "friends".

* Let our coverage speak for itself, and don't detail how an article was reported, written or edited.
>> This is a conversational medium. It's not the old world where the reporting was done behind closed doors. The most powerful reporting I see in social media is evolutionary, conversational, and done out in the open.

Don't discuss articles that haven't been published, meetings you've
attended or plan to attend with staff or sources, or interviews that
you've conducted.
>> I get great value from talking about investments I plan to make. The feedback and comments I get from those posts informs the investment decision and how we plan to manage the investment once we've made it. The same approach is being used by the most forward thinking journalists. As I said in the previous comment, reporting that is evolutionary, conversational, and done out in the open is often the most powerful way to report. Clearly there are times when it cannot and should not be used, but to say "never do this" is very wrong.

* Business and pleasure should not be mixed on
services like Twitter. Common sense should prevail, but if you are in
doubt about the appropriateness of a Tweet or posting, discuss it with
your editor before sending.

>> This is dead wrong. The friendships and relationships you build on social media build your network and provide the context for reporting opportunities in the future. I learned this early on via this blog. By being myself, talking about things other than work, I built a community of "friends" here at AVC who have helped me on so many ways I can't even begin to enumerate them. Social media is all about mixing personal and business. Those who do it best win.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. Josh King

    With respect to confidential sources, there will be occasions, even with thousands of “friends,” where the context of the story will risk revealing the source. It’s a good idea to at least think through such sensitivities before adding a confidential source to your public network.The rest of these rules are silly. They should be replaced with “use your professional judgment and common sense.”

  2. David Semeria

    Old journalism = closed sourceNew journalism = open sourceWorks for me.

    1. Adrian Palacios

      David, you hit on what I was thinking… that is: 1) Keep your Rolodex secret, 2) Don’t reveal writing process, 3) Don’t divulge upcoming articles or meetings. To me, these lengthy rules are a fancy way of saying “Loose lips sink ships.”Put another way, it appears social media is another thing the WSJ feels it needs to build a wall against. First it’s the parasitic nature of Google, and now it’s the ever-growing social media monster that will let reporters out sources, allow competing journos to scoop them, or reveal the inner-workings of an organization that is desperately trying to remain opaque in the face of the chaotic and open web.Another medium in which they need to clamp down on the “brand.” Etc.

    2. kipsteele

      Exactly. What a great comment. You cannot define yourself by thinking that creating rules in a boundary less frontier is going to work. Adapt or die

  3. stone

    This may be the beginning of the end of the love affair between Twitter and old media. It may actually prove to be a good thing because a bear hug from old media only increases the chance of a flame out.

  4. William Mougayar

    If they have to think 3 times before using social media, they won’t be as participative. This is definitely a rather “conservative’ set of rules,- the kind that this challenged industry doesn’t need. They are trying to define black/white boundaries that aren’t there, instead of gracefully blurring into it. Why can’t they let their writers “rip” on the social media scenes, and join the conversations just like other online writers do,- and what if they say something that’s not 100%? They can correct it 5 mins later, etc… My prediction: we will see more writers defect to online/social media.

  5. Mark Essel

    I believe a number of new media agencies are following your suggestions Fred. Let time be the judge as we compare their success to the Wall Street Journal. I’m hoping to be surprised and for the WSJ to embrace the changes coming but I suspect they will try to hold on to their previous systems.

  6. JLM

    As always, a very interesting topic.Without taking a particular position in support or opposed to the policies, I would simply observe that news — like many things — is susceptible to a “brand” lending its imprimatur to the authenticity and quality of the content. The WSJ is a good brand with a particular strength and focus and is entitled to protect its brand in the marketplace.If a reporter is going to take the WSJ’s money and the WSJ is going to invest to develop, expand and defend its brand, then a reporter is going to have to be subjected to a set of rules that support that brand. Typical of any employer-employee relationship.The alternative is freelance journalism. Or perhaps “commentary” which freely mixes a bit of news and a splash of opinion.There is also a meaningful legal implication here — who is legally liable for the comments made by a WSJ journalist on a social media website?The other interesting aspect of this is the explosion of sources attempting to take their story directly to the public without either the filter or lens of any journalistic interpretation or purveyor of news. The recent election is an instructive example as the highly successful Obama campaign demonstrated its smarts and skills by using the social media as a powerful dual fundraising and information outlet.

    1. David Semeria

      Again, very like open source software.If your open source software breaks who do you blame? Who do you sue?Some companies make a decent living merely by extending warranties (SLAs) on open source software (which they neither own nor control) – merely to allow other companies to use the software without breaking internal policies.

  7. PKafka

    OK, Fred. I’ll bite. Disclaimer/preamble: I write for a site owned by Dow Jones/WSJ, but I’m a contractor, not a Dow Jones employee. I don’t think the new guidelines cover me, but we’ll see. In any case, I’m certainly not speaking/writing on behalf of Dow Jones here. That said:I don’t have a problem with the bulk of this stuff. I think you could cover most of it with something along the lines of “think before you write – in any medium”, but big organizations like to spell this stuff out, for both management and legal reasons. Nature of the beast. (And it’s one of the reasons I enjoy being a contractor.)And I disagree with the general feedback I’ve been seeing on the Web — that Dow Jones/WSJ “doesn’t get” social media or is “missing out” on it, and that these rules are further evidence. I don’t think the conduct guidelines prevent editorial employees from taking advantage of/participating in social media – they just point out some of the pitfalls.Fine to “friend” a source, for instance. But you may not want that showing up on your LinkedIn profile immediately before or after you publish a story that cites that source, anonymously. Same thing with discussing the way you reported a contentious story. I love the fact that you walked through the deal points of your Geocities investment from a decade ago, but I don’t expect to see you doing the same thing w/your Twitter stake for a very long time.Openness is great, except when it’s not, and all of us need to figure out when and where it works depending on our circumstances.

    1. fredwilson

      peter – thanks for showing up and participating. that in and of itself is exactly what i am talking about. if i am going to talk to anyone about the stuff i am doing that i don’t blog about, it’s likely to be you or someone like you who takes the time to engage in the medium i care about and invest in.i also agree that “use good judgement and common sense” is the rule that everyone ought to be applying. i’ve broken that rule a few times and paid the price for it.

    2. David Semeria

      Great point re practical limits of openness

  8. David Hamilton

    So are you arguing that the medium is the message, that reporting of the story becomes the story?Sorry, I don’t buy that. What you’re recommending would be the latest step in a slippery slope that seems to be replacing news reporting with gossip, debate and chat.For example, a friend who lives in the US (I’m in the UK) complains that the biggest problem he has with the US media is trying to find out the actual *facts* of an event. It seems that the media moves almost immediately from the item headline through to opinion pieces and debate, bypassing the details of what has actually happened!Clearly this opining and debating is a result of 24-hour news reporting, where there is not enough news to fill the airtime, and that actual reporting costs money (opinions are cheap – everybody has one).Do you really want reporting to descend into a “gossip grapevine”, consuming lots of bandwidth and containing precious little data? Or am I missing your point?

    1. fredwilson

      You are missing my point but its almost 1am here in nyc and I just got off a 6 hour flight so I don’t have the energy to make it

      1. David Hamilton

        I guess your point could be that journalists social network chat would be different from their actual reporting, which is true, even if the line seems to get more blurred everyday.But I think the real problem is that current social media are actually publication in their own right. This is so unlike the way that people traditionally communicate. It is rather like walking into a mixed room of workmates, friends, relations and strangers and shouting an opinion – very few of us actually communicate like that (and those that do probably attract labels very quickly!)Similarly, very few of us publish our Rolodex. You might argue that this is a new model that people will adapt to, but the history of technology shows that people stick with what they know, even on the bleeding edge, which is why portable computing remains very close to the form factor of the A4/Letter and the Pocketbook.Clearly the current Social Media implementations have a long way to go (as it evolves to 2.0) before they replicate our natural methods of networking and communication.Think I’ve figured out where social media is heading – the end game so to speak. The interesting bit now is figuring out how we are going to get from where we are now to that end point.

  9. arv43

    Very interesting to read your thoughts on this. And I agree with your stance, that old media is trying to fit new media like twitter into their models (square peg, round hole -ish). But my problem/question is more with the quality of journalism being changed for the worse (and this is probably not because of new media but old media being confused). If I recall correctly, Jeff Jarvis quoted the SF Chronicle’s founder (I might be wrong here, will dig for it and update this post) about the role of journalism being to find and report the facts, and not personal opinions etc. And I still believe that journalistic principles should not change, the goal of journalism does not change. Only how it is done evolves. So, use common sense is a universal rule. Shouldnt these media companies be more concerned about being better journalists?Also, continuing on Mark Essel’s point about new media agencies getting it, am curious to see more of people like Adrian Holovaty.

  10. hypermark

    As @JLM puts this, a lot of it comes down to brand decisions. WSJ has to figure out how much of their brand (which is powered by consumer perception) is driven by “official” reporting/delivery of the news and how much is driven by “boundary-less” models, and how much of this is global (i.e., all Dow Jones/WSJ pubs/sites) and how much of this is pub/site specific (e.g., the guidelines for All Things Digital may very well be different than WSJ).I think that the bottom line is that the news organizations have done a poor job building real community around their content, but then again, it’s unclear how much of this is consumer directed (i.e., consumers not wanting a communal relationship with their news providers) and how much of this is media operator directed (building and cultivating communal engagement takes a lot of work and may be a different set of muscles than media cos. have).Fred, you obviously plug yourself deeply into the conversational flow of these posts, push them in tweets, are proactive in the tweetsphere and intentionally blur boundaries between official, social and personal, which serves to maximize the power of a whole lot of loose ties.It’s a little murkier for old media to figure out balance between faciltating brand development of individual writers vs. umbrella brand of the pub itself. That’s an advantage that the HuffPos, TechCrunches and Fred Wilsons have that the WSJ have to grapple with; namely, no legacy offline/official brand to navigate. You guys are 100% online natives.

    1. Catharine P. Taylor

      There are certainly parts of the WSJ rules that are over the top, but confidential sources have to be protected, and simply hiding within hundreds of thousands of Facebook friends isn’t nearly enough. Yes, here’s a link to something I posted about it. Read if you like:

    2. fredwilson

      Indeed. But I so badly want them to get it and succeed with the new model

      1. hypermark

        You and me both. It bums me out to no end to find a magazine that I loved (Portfolio) spontaneously disappear and my local newspaper (SF Chronicle) reduced to the size of a pamphlet. Oh, did I forget my local news station (KRON) doing away with sports on Sunday nights?Inspired me to right a tongue in cheek post called, Gallows Humor: The Media “Business”URL: it out if interested.Mark

      2. Kontra


        1. fredwilson

          Same reason you don’t want to see your local deli go out of business

  11. scottythebody

    Hmm… #1 is actually a very good rule, and your response is weak. Security through obscurity is no security at all. Hoping a confidential or protected source gets “lost” in the crowd is flat-out bad practice. Better to have two sets of eyes on that one, I think. But you’re right when I infer from your “common sense” comment that a good journalist, who is being responsible and protecting his sources, wouldn’t “friend” in the first place.

    1. Bulging Bracket

      The big problem is that your “friends” will be your once and future confidential sources. Most evident in political reporting (since the players and focus change much slower) but same in business reporting.The source can be found out by examining the graph, but strategic friending and unfriending can also be used and is even more apparent.Leak hunts will be more effective against reporters with smaller reputations – sources are more apparent on their graphs and have less excuses for being there. Friending Mossberg means nothing. This kind of risk will exacerbate Power Law aspects of reporting that leverages the social graph.

  12. ptanthos

    no protection — no watergate expose. Deep throat would never have surfaced. He stayed hidden because nothing was ever in writing.

    1. fredwilson

      That’s the old wayI’m not sure its the new way

      1. kipsteele

        Pano I have to disagree with you here. NY is extending laws to cover investigative bloggers. Huffignton Post is putting money toward investigative blogging. People care about investigations and the research needed to get to the story. Openess will prompt people to seek out a voice to document and represent the causes that are having an impact on them.

  13. scottythebody

    D’oh. I re-read the rule and you’re right. It doesn’t say to consult your editor before friending some sources, it says *any* and, you called it, that is a wrong answer.

  14. Miguel Cavalcanti

    Hi Fred, great post.I think this is another strong indication that shows newspapers are lost. :-)Tks for sharing.Best wishes, Miguel, from Brazil

    1. fredwilson

      I read that oneWow

      1. Morgan Warstler

        Yep. I must admit I’m torn. I hate reality TV because I’m convinced it is an intentional renunciation of talent by an audience that doesn’t want to feel less than the professional actors. It happened in the 80’s – remember Real People and That’s Incredible? I’m convinced blogging has its same roots there. Blogging is a slightly lessor thing, it would be healthy if even the best bloggers just admitted it. Journalists are dollars, and bloggers are dimes or nickels – it takes a lot more of them to get the same job done. Ayn Rand’s romantic age and all that. Kant. We should be able to ENJOY amateur hour, without feeling the need to pretend it is just as good as LeBron James (Go Cavs).To your point, the issue of internal press policy, there is something that professional journalism does that is different than blogging, it has to do with the legal and financial responsiblity of getting it wrong. A free press needs a big wallet to withstand other guy’s legal departments. Secondly, their credibility is at stake, and frankly the quickest way for me to prove the NYT is a biased liberal rag is to let their reporters run their mouths on twitter.So I’m in favor of a more open policy in the professional press IF those of us arguing for it are the same people reminding the amatuers they are still amatuers. That attitude alone amongst the audience, will make the professional press more likely to play with new tech.

  15. julie_poplawski

    Fantastic! Social networking rules are “social” rules more than publishing rules. Even though wit and words rule over beauty and braun…charm is still transparent and sincere. Thanks.

  16. T.D. Klein

    Fred,There’s lots going on here, but the key word that keeps popping up in your post and everyone’s comments is “relationship.” Old media simply has not figured out how to get comfortable with the new type of (two way) relationship they now have with their audience, and they certainly haven’t figured out how to monetize that reltionship. The miscellany of rules they’ve tried to impose on their journalists is a futile attempt to set the ground rules for those relationships. I doubt the audience will comply; they’re more likely to go elsewhere. I contrast that your blog and to something like the revamped Atlantic ( where the writers stories are posted with mostly unfiltered comments and, indeed, become part of the story. Add some fancy graphics and a few regular bloggers alongside you and A VC doesn’t look so different. The WSJ becomes the outlier.

  17. leeschneider

    Interesting reading these comments. Not too many people made note of the rule re: mixing business and pleasure. I’m a firm believer that Twitter is just the forum to mix business with pleasure. A friend and I have been debating the proper use of Twitter as he’s trying to build a brand and bring awareness to his biz (@bgreenstore). I argue that re-tweeting a joke or funny anecdote does no harm, but rather brings a personality to the person tweeting (as long as it’s done infrequently). He argues that until the brand is successfully established, the tweets should be strictly based around the business. Thoughts?

    1. fredwilson

      You gotta mix it upAll business is boring and nobody cares

  18. andreaitis

    Journalists have always mixed business and pleasure. It usually happened in the nearest bar at the end of the day (and long into the night). The best moments happened in those bars: that day’s scoop celebrated, the competition dissected, the next day’s show mapped out on a napkin. Young wannabe reporters learned the real lessons in those bars.As reporters are cut loose and newsrooms crumple, those bars are less crowded. Today, Twitter and Facebook are the new journalist hangout. And the “New Journalist” hangout. Thrive on.

  19. Bryan

    Thank you for this article. It’s a perfect example of why the newspaper industry is hurting right now. Their process of interacting with the public is too clinical and 1960’s. I like it when bloggers and writers discuss their experiences and feelings on a topic because it makes the story human and interesting. I am very excited to see how things change with the media over the next few years. I have a feeling that we will see a lot more online journalism and blogging and a lot less newspapers.Below is a blog that just started that I like to read.http://publiusandcentinel.b

  20. kevinmurphy

    I could not agree more with your last point. When did a wall get erected that divides a person from their personal life. There exists in every person a gut “right or wrong” feeling as it relates to their actions. I don’t think any employer would want to hire a person who doesn’t have a personal life with meaning on a spiritual, social, and moral level (among numerous others).

  21. Amanda Chapel

    Bastardized journalistic ethics and personalized community sourcing isn’t a “new model;” it’s just plain-old gossip.

    1. fredwilson

      One person’s gossip is another person’s news

  22. William Mougayar

    Check out IBM’s Social Computing Guidelines, as a contrast to WSJ’s: They seem to be more open-minded and less straight-jacket about it.

    1. fredwilson

      That’s for sure

  23. Mr. X

    Fred,The issues with sourcing/”friending” in journalism are not nearly as cut and dry as you portray. I served as a source (quoted on background or as a source who provided evidence/documents/etc.) for hundreds of stories in a niche area of politics. I knew all the reporters who covered that particular beat, I knew all the villains, etc. And, with a little bit of sleuthing, I could usually infer other sources in similar stories.You asserted that “it is not going to be clear who your sources were on a particular story from a list of hundreds to thousands of ‘friends’.” That is completely untrue. For any specific story, I could think of four or five potential sources. If a reporter “friends” a source or two, I don’t need to look through “hundreds or thousands” of names. I only need to see if that reporter is connected to one of those people.That’s the thing about beat reporting. Everyone knows everyone. And sometimes finding that one little piece of information that confirms that person A was a source changes everything. As a very confidential source, I would have been totally screwed if people following that beat knew I was friendly with this or that reporter. It would’ve completely compromised my ability to distribute information that the public needed to know.In conclusion, the nexus between private sources and public acknowledgement of relationships is a difficult one to navigate. Until you’ve really operated in that world (and trust me, the world of venture capital, notwithstanding the silly gossip blogs, is nothing like the world of investigative reporting), be a little more circumspect before proclaiming hard and fast truths about it.Cheers,Mr. X

    1. fredwilson

      Good points. It gives me greater appreciation for the issues

  24. shrikar

    Hey Fred,I have to agree with WSJ on the fourth directive. Business and pleasure should indeed be seperated when interacting with your contacts on twitter etc. This is especially true when your job requires a high deal of discretion. Here the safest bet is to avoid all work related information ( unless it part of a deliberate marketing strategy ;D )RegardsShrikarwww.silvertiesdesignstudios…

  25. fredwilson

    Maybe samgadjones isn’t trying very hardI work hard to make this community what it isOthers can and should do the sameIts the future. I’m betting on it with my money and my mouth 🙂