yet another way newspapers are doomed

I think it’s safe to say I’m not a social media triumphalist.  But this is silly:

This week, some Post staffers responded to outside critics via our main Twitter account. At issue was a controversial piece we’d published online. The intent in replying was to defend the decision to publish the piece, but it was misguided both in describing our rationale for publishing the piece and as a matter of practice. It shouldn’t have been sent.

Even as we encourage everyone in the newsroom to embrace social media and relevant tools, it is absolutely vital to remember that the purpose of these Post branded accounts is to use them as a platform to promote news, bring in user generated content and increase audience engagement with Post content. No branded Post accounts should be used to answer critics and speak on behalf of the Post, just as you should follow our normal journalistic guidelines in not using your personal social media accounts to speak on behalf of the Post.

Perhaps it would be useful to think of the issue this way: when we write a story, our readers are free to respond and we provide them a venue to do so. We sometimes engage them in a private verbal conversation, but once we enter a debate personally through social media, this would be equivalent to allowing a reader to write a letter to the editor–and then publishing a rebuttal by the reporter. It’s something we don’t do. Please feel free to flag Marcus, Liz and me when you see something out there that you think deserves a response from the Post. As we routinely do, we will work with Kris Coratti and her team to respond when appropriate.

Emphasis mine.

So: you’re free to use social media to spam people — a strategy sure to reap long-term success — and readers are free to wade into the cesspools of racism and reactionary thought that are newspaper web comment sections, where their contributions will be utterly ignored by everyone.

That’s just not how it works.  This is a fundamental problem, and one that all the Chief Innovation Officers and Social Media Strategists and Vice Presidents of Thinking Outside the Box at big firms will eventually find themselves unable to deal with.  The things that make new media compelling make message discipline impossible.

People have been fooled into thinking it can be otherwise by some unreproducible early successes.  It’s true that if your early-adopter employees happen to be talented spokespeople for your organization, everything will be fine.  This actually happens sometimes!  Look at Major Nelson or Comcast Frank or Robert Scoble.

But as disintermediating mediums expand to include the meaty part of the employee-competence bell curve, it becomes increasingly unwise to rely on that kind of luck.  To whatever extent message discipline is important to your organization — and it is, to varying degrees, for every organization — you really do have to choose between the exciting possibilities that social media represents and exposing the true nature of your workforce.

Personally, I think that’s all to the good.  I don’t think it’s any great tragedy that the callous idiocy behind the Post’s decision to publish an anti-gay bigot in its pages was accidentally highlighted.  But hey, if the organization is keen to use regimented silence to disguise the abhorrence of its op-ed decisions for a few more years, it’s within its rights and abilities to do so.  It’s just a little silly to pretend you can have it both ways.

(I should note that the memo is less severe than it’s been billed: the narrow language used pertains to Post-branded Twitter accounts, not writers’ personal accounts.  Still, it’s hard to imagine that distinction persisting for long.)

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