Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal issued a new set of guidelines for professional conduct to its staff which, among other things, detailed the do's and don'ts of social networking. At the time, reaction to the rules was unknown, but writing on her Save the media blog, newspaper journalist, Gina Chen, clearly disagrees with the WSJ bosses.
"This is an open letter to the Dow Jones and Co.," begins the post. The author says that executives at the WSJ "fail" to grasp the point of social media and proceeds to address each specific rule, line by line.
For instance, regarding the rule that states staff should not "disparage the work of colleagues or competitors or aggressively promote your coverage," the writer agrees that it would be "bad form" to criticise the work of others, but disagrees with the second point on individuals having the right to raise their own profiles: "But what's wrong with promoting your own coverage," she asks? "One of the great benefits of Twitter, Facebook, other social media is you can link to your blog or story and let others who might be interested know about it. It seems without that ability social media becomes somewhat pointless, and you limit your audience to those who already read you or happened upon you in a Google search."
Although, is the WSJ not simply saying here that employees should not force their work on others, but that a reasonable level of self-promotion is otherwise accepted? How a journalist would be expected to quantify "reasonable level" is, of course, open to interpretation.
Nevertheless, one particularly good point is made about the difference between "connecting with" readers and purely "broadcasting to them." The author says: "It's a conversation. People follow you because they like you or they're interested in your topic area. If you want to connect with people on Twitter you need to come across as a human being, who jokes around, who tweets a favourite song, who complains about the weather. Nobody wants to follow a robot. And that's not connecting; that's broadcasting."
Chen is not alone in her criticism of the Wall Street Journal's attitude to social networking; writing on his blog, BuzzMachine, Jeff Jarvis agrees, as does Matthew Ingram, writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, who says the rules are too restrictive: "The idea that you can maintain a strict division between the personal and professional just doesn't jibe with the way social networks (or human beings) operate," says Ingram. Steve Buttry, on the other hand, commends the WSJ for giving employees instructions on online etiquette, but concedes "that some of the guidelines reflect a lack of understanding about social media."
Even though it would be irresponsible for a news organisation not to brief staff on what is considered acceptable online behaviour and could potentially lead to staff unwittingly leaking confidential information - as recently happened at the New York Times - the point about social network sites offering journalists the opportunity to connect directly with readers is an interesting one. Whatever the rules, editors should welcome the debate with their staff and why not invite the social network members themselves to contribute to the discussion?