WSJ Doesn’t Get Web 2.0 – New Rules Will Hurt Reporting

As you’ve probably heard, staffers at The Wall Street Journal were given a list of rules for “professional conduct” this week, which included a detailed guide for using online channels and cautions journalists about participation in social networking sites. 

In an e-mail to employees, Deputy Managing Editor Alix Freedman wrote, “We’ve pulled together into one document the policies that guide appropriate professional conduct for all of us in the News Departments of the Journal, DowJones Newswires and MarketWatch. Many of these will be familiar.”

Most of the rules are common sense (i.e. never misrepresent yourself online using a false name). But, a couple that really caught my attention have to do with social networking. According to this document, reporters within the WSJ family are no longer allowed to “friend” anyone online without editorial approval.

The rule states: “Openly ‘friending’ sources is akin to publicly publishing your Rolodex.”

Setting aside the fact that privacy features allow people to prevent even “friends” from seeing their entire connections/friend/follower list, this rule is such the antithesis of social media, I wonder if the WSJ isn’t trying to hasten the paper’s demise.

I know many reporters who no longer want to get buried under a pile of email pitches and instead want PR pros to follow their Twitter feeds so publicists can see the kinds of stories they are looking for before pitching. The reporters who use this method have said it makes them much more efficient, ensures they receive only the leads they need, and builds journalist-PR relationships.

Murdoch’s new rule prevents this and forces reporters to rely on antiquated and inefficient pitching practices like email.

Another rule that completely blew my mind is that reporters are not to discuss published articles. (insert Scooby double take here). Reporters are not allowed to talk to their readers?! Amazing. Here’s a tip, Mr Freedman: Web 2.0 is a two-way dialogue. What you are suggesting is that WSJ, Newswire and MarketWatch reporters revert to the antiquated model that is making newspapers obsolete.

Jeff Jarvis addresses this issue: This misses the chance to make their reporting collaborative. Of course, they should discuss how an article was made. Of course, they should talk about stories as they are in progress. Net natives – as WSJ owner Rupert Murdoch calls them – understand this. Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc. also provide the opportunity for reporters and editors to come out from behind the institutional voice of the paper – a voice that is less and less trusted – and to become human. Of course, they should mix business and pleasure.

Chris Cadelago calls the rules unreasonable and insists these guidelines take the public out of the newsgathering process, noting: “For most reporters, especially those dubbed ‘net natives’ by Journal owner Rupert Murdoch, it has become impossible not to mix our lives online with our lives off. Both take place in and out of the office.”

For me, this is an unreasonable attempt for a traditional media channel to revert to old, antiquated rules of reader engagement – back to a time when the news was a one-way street. And, no one in the history of business – much less media – has ever succeeded in going backward when the rest of the business world is moving forward into new frontiers.

The idea that a reporter must gain editorial approval before “friending” someone online is truly laughable. Does Freeman not understand how the news works? Does he not get that reporters must act quickly when they get a lead? Imagine a whistle-blower – in a moment of conscience – reaches out to a reporter on Facebook to share a story about mishandled company funds or skirting around regulations and that reporter must go through a chain-of-command that can take hours – or even days – before responding. I really wonder how Freedman plans to explain to his publishers why the WSJ is out-scooped on future stories.

Plus, as Jarvis and Cadelago pointed out above, the professional and personal lives of reporters (and really most professionals today) take place online and off. Asking them not to mix the two is as backward as asking reporters not to mingle with friends and colleagues at public events.

As I always say, technology has changed the game, people. You have two choices and two choices only: keep up or fall back.

What do you think? Is the WSJ missing the whole point of Web 2.0?

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