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Mediaite Year One: Legacy Media Gets Social (Sort Of)

On the occasion of Mediaite’s year anniversary earlier this week, some of our staff members and contributors look back on the year that was.

In the year that Mediaite has been around, it’s certainly been an interesting time for the media world. As Mediaite quickly established itself as one of the go-to sites covering the media industry, legacy media outlets finally began to come to terms with social media — particularly the New York Times and the Washington Post, two of the most storied newspapers in America. In the past year, these news organizations and others began to incorporate social media into their plans – but with varying objectives.

Just over a year ago, the New York Times announced that Jen Preston would be stepping into the new role of the Times’ Social Media Editor, and her position began to truly take off last summer. While some suspected that she had been hired to police some of the NYT reporters’ tweets, Deputy Managing Editor Jonathan Landman confirmed that while her role would include some level of policing, it would be more focused on helping the Times figure out how to harness social tools and use them to innovate.

The Times — America’s paper of record — had proven that they saw that value in social media as a tool for innovation and a tool to help their troubled paper survive. Over the last few years the Times, despite financial struggles and declining subscriber counts, has emerged as a leader in innovating on the web. And this year May, the NYT announced that they would be purchasing FiveThirtyEight.com, bringing Nate Silver and his wildly successful political blog into the virtual pages of the New York Times.

Meanwhile, last September, the Washington Post announced its new social media guidelines for staff members, and they weren’t popular. They seemed to be going the opposite direction, heavily focused on policing staff tweets from personal accounts, provoked in part by a controversy where the Post’s web managing editor, Raju Narisetti, had to shut down his private Twitter account after word got out about controversial tweets.

The Post was not the first major newspaper to issue social media guidelines for how staffers could interact on their personal accounts: the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News had also issued their own guidelines earlier in 2009, and both were met with the same level of criticism from bloggers, new media practitioners, and media critics; Bloomberg for forbidding linking and mentioning of competitors, while WSJ was criticized heavily for its general focus on restricting staff members’ use of personal social media profiles.

Just this past March the famed newswire Reuters issued company social media guidelines for their staff, and their new policy didn’t go over so well with the online community either: one of Reuter’s top concerns was that reporters should never break news on Twitter, which they consider “scooping the wire.” (They clearly don’t share the very commonly held view in new media that Twitter IS the new newswire!). Other guidelines included seeking permission from editors before using social media for professional purposes, and getting approval before posting each tweet.

Social media guidelines that police journalists’ tweeting and Facebooking became the norm for many news organizations in the past year, but the BBC became one notable exception: rather than crack down on staff tweets, the BBC’s Global News Director Pete Horrocks issued a directive in February 2010 stating that all BBC journalists should be using social media. “This isn’t just a kind of fad,” Horrocks said. “I’m afraid you’re not doing your job if you can’t do those things. It’s not discretionary.”

They may not be making all the right moves all the time, but what’s notable to me is that in the past year, these institutions all took major steps to try to grapple with social media within their news organizations. At this point, they’re all in the arena and recognize that they have to get involved in social media as far as how it affects their newsrooms. The problem remains that many of these legacy news organizations are only taking steps to crack down on staff social media usage and to tell them what they can’t do. Very few are making efforts to encourage staff to participate in social media and developing ways to innovate using new tools.

In this respect, most news organizations are lagging far behind the New York Times – instead of asking how social media can help inform their reporting and newsgathering, many news organizations still view it as an entity that largely needs to be tamed and controlled to avoid potential embarrassments to the company. But it’s not enough to simply accept that social media exists and to try to control it; it would benefit these news organizations far more to make social media work for them, especially in an age where so many newsrooms are financially struggling just to stay alive. Social media doesn’t have to be the enemy of news – it can make our news much richer if they can just let it.

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