When I started blogging about journalism, I did so at the urging of a hiring editor (who didn’t, ultimately, hire me but did inspire me). I had all these great digital skills, she told me, but she asked why had I presented her with carbon-based clips (i.e. paper) instead of a URL. I left the job fair and put the years of web design experience I’d been amassing to good work, and by the end of the weekend had built myself a website with clips, a resume, a bio and a blog about, what else, journalism and my place in the evolving industry.
That was a few months before my college graduation. And after putting so much work into the blog, I proudly stamped the URL on my resume and included it in my cover letters to prospective employers. To be honest, the blog’s inclusion wasn’t so much a way to show off my work as to cover my ass. When I interviewed for jobs, I discussed it. When I was hired, I searched the employee handbook and intranet for information about personal blogs. Soon after I arrived, I sat down with the executive editor and we discussed it. See, what kept me up late at night wasn’t the prospect of graduating without a job, but rather I did not want one of those editors to plug my name in Google and come across my blog, assuming I had hid or was hiding it.
I had flashbacks to that period and those decisions when I heard the story of Khristopher Brooks, who was fired this week from the job he hadn’t yet started because of the way he announced his new job on his tumblr blog. Brooks did a silly thing, but in my opinion, the folks he thought would soon be his new bosses did an even sillier one. (In my honest opinion, I think they come off looking out-of-touch and overly cautious for a news organization currently force-feeding its employees the “digital first!” company line, and he comes off probably having dodged a bullet.)
Here’s what got Brooks fired, and then, here’s my been-there-done-that advice on how to not get fired for your personal journalism blog.
In late March, the Gannett-owned Delaware News Journal offered Brooks, a soon-to-be NYU journalism graduate, a job as an investigative reporter. Excited about the job, Brooks bought a car, put his apartment in New York up for rent and did what professionals in some other industries do when they’re excited about a new hire, he put out a press release stating he’d been “acquired”. The press release, obviously tongue-in-cheek and pompously sprinkled with a few choice phrases from his offer letter, was not meant to do anything but announce his good news and excitement to his Tumblr readers.
Media blogger Jim Romenesko took note of the creativity. (Plenty of commentators there and elsewhere took note of the “was that really necessary?” aspect, which I won’t get into.)
His bosses, evidently, took note of his unauthorized use of the company logo and lines from their offer letter. And, Brooks says, they called him to inform him he was being fired for the contents of that press release. Doh.
As Brooks put it, in a note he wrote about his firing for the Huffington Post, he assumed they were cool with it and understood the excited, not malicious, intent:
Before Romenesko and I hung up, he asked if the News Journal had seen my blog post. I didn’t know the answer. I figured someone had seen the post because it was on a public Tumblr page, a public WordPress blog and I tweeted a link to it. Romenesko said he would reach out to the News Journal for comment. I thought nothing of it.
Then, his soon-to-be boss called and rescinded the job offer:
I was at a loss for words. When I finally spoke I said, “Well, can I just take it down? I know Romenesko’s cell number. I can have him take it down, I’ll take mine down, this never happened.”
Freedman said the decision was out of his hands and that the final axe came from the publisher, HR and corporate. To me, that says there was an internal conversation about this, a conversation that I wasn’t invited to join. Had I been brought in, I could have said “I’m sorry. I didn’t know this was bad. I’ll take it down. End of story.”
Fortunately, Brooks has taken this in stride, toned down the arrogance of the press release, and accepted that the job he was so excited to begin isn’t going to happen. He’s also learned from it and gained some potential job leads from other organizations not so jumpy at the idea of a digital native using those technologies without their express written permission.
When I started blogging, Twitter didn’t exist and few people used Tumblr. A reporter blogging, especially a young journalist, was a relative rarity. I know because for a time, I was a lone wolf swimming in the tide of commentary from academics and much more accomplished writers. But over the course of the years I actively kept the blog (pre-10,000 Words), dozens of young journalists sent me notes asking how I did it and how they could do it without getting fired. So here’s the advice I gave them and what worked for me:
- Just do it. You should have a portfolio of your clips and resume online, as well as a presence on various social media. Unless your company expressly forbids it, you should have these just because good reporting today requires you to be in touch with these technologies. If your company forbids it, you should probably do it anyway so you can more easily find a job at a company that appreciates your digital skills — or at least so you have less to compile when your digital-naive company flounders and you need a new job. (FYI: WordPress is a great, easy, free way to set this up. I use it as the CMS for my own portfolio.)
- Do not hide it. Someone is going to Google you, and Google is smarter than you. If it’s public on the Internet, people will find it. You should have a candid discussion with your boss(es) about what’s not OK to post. That is, actually, more important than what is OK. Ideally, you’ll be on the same page. Explain why you want to post and what sorts of topics you want to write about. It might be OK to post your verbatim clips (they might say only post links). It should be OK to share your opinion on trends in the industry and your own vague experiences, though commenting on specific top news stories is a good way to get in trouble. It’s never going to be OK to share your opinions of your sources or colleagues or the office gossip. (See also: Google has a long memory. Also: Ethics.)
- When in doubt, don’t post it. If you hesitate about whether something will be taken the wrong way, or whether your co-workers, your friends or your community would appreciate the post and understand your intentions, do not post it. You can’t just take it back when a joke falls flat (as Brooks learned the hard way). Things do not go away once they’re on the Internet, and the more you want it to go away the more likely it is to spread like wildfire.
- Do not write about your sources. Or your bosses. This is probably the fastest and stupidest way to unemployment. If you would not share it with the general readership of your newspaper or on air, do not share it with the rest of the Internet. If you have to think about this, you probably shouldn’t post it. If you do not have proof to back up your comments, do not write them. If you do not like someone or merely have some juicy gossip they would not want shared, keep it to yourself or at least keep it contained in the newsroom between you and your colleagues in discussions about whether it is a legitimate story to pursue.
- Do not scoop your employer. This applies both to news about the news (which you shouldn’t be blogging about unless it’s your beat anyway), but also, and perhaps especially, to news about employment, whether it has to do with layoffs or who was just hired. Let your employer bring you on board before you announce to the world where you’re headed. Honestly, so much can happen that even a signed job offer and acceptance isn’t a sure thing. Wait until you arrive to share the good news publicly. Not only does this cover yourself in case something unfortunate happens (they freeze the position or corporate announces layoffs or you get and take some amazingly better offer), but also it gives them a chance to fully inform the also-rans that they have not been selected for the job. Wouldn’t you be bummed if you interviewed for a job and found out you didn’t get it from Twitter before the editor could send a rejection letter? I would.
- Avoid bias, real or perceived. I’m ripping this from the code of ethics. Reporters can’t have political bumper stickers and you can’t blog about anything you damn well please. While people in other professions can get away with irreverent commentary on everything from abortion to the latest court trial to consumer product reviews, you can’t. The closer you come to posting about any topic you have covered or may be called upon to cover, the closer you come to being called into your boss’s office to discuss your blog and your position. Don’t go there. (Unless of course you’re blogging as part of your job, which I fully encourage, and in a forum in which you uphold the same standards and ethics you would in any other published story.) You may be super passionate about it, but you have to be aware how it might impact future stories you tell and also public perception of your objectivity as a reporter and the media outlet’s bias and professionalism.
- Be professional. It sucks, but as a reporter you will always, until you quit being a reporter, be the face of the news organization with which you are affiliated. Disclaimers such as “opinions are my own” do not nullify that public perception. Obscene or offensive, unprofessional, profanity-laced or grammatically questionable posts do not reflect well on you or your employer. Even when it’s your “personal” site, anyone can find it. (Do not trust privacy settings.) It’s not funny if it gets you fired. If it gets you fired, it probably won’t help you get hired someone else.
I’m generally a proponent of the “it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission” philosophy in life, when pushing boundaries helps you push yourself. But as you can see from the Brooks case, that’s not always the best idea, especially when you’re young and your employer is hyper-sensitive to such seemingly insignificant things as misuse of a logo (which, seriously, that’s a fireable offense? no mea culpa allowed?). Brooks doesn’t come off as faultless, but neither was he clueless. He made a mistake he didn’t realize was a mistake, with real-world consequences. So when your job is on the line, I’ll advocate for a “better safe than sorry” approach or at least suggest you get a second opinion from someone higher up before posting. After all, as Brooks concludes in his HuffPo post, wouldn’t you rather be writing the headlines than making them?