New York Times Stirs Controversy for Social Media Monitoring

Did paper go too far in assigning bureau chief a babysitter?

The growing pains continue for legacy media in its ongoing adaptation to the digital era. After coming under fire for a few ill-advised social media postings, The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren has been assigned an editor "to work closely with Ms. Rudoren on her social media posts," according to a post by Times public editor Margaret Sullivan.

As is tradition, the social media chattering class went into a frenzy over the Times' decision, calling the post and reaction to Rudoren's posts "utterly painful" and chastising the paper for its use of a social media "babysitter." For those who monitor media, the argument has become somewhat stale as social media standards and practices have been part of an evolving conversation since its inception as a newsroom tool. Yet what's perplexing about this particular instance is the how the decision appears to clash with the Times' highly praised policy of allowing journalists a long leash across social media platforms.

Reuters social media editor Matthew Keys told Adweek that this latest conversation "shows that many journalists are still trying to figure out how to use Twitter and Facebook as both brand ambassadors and human beings, and newsrooms are still struggling to clearly define where the line is between using social media as a promotional platform versus using it as an engagement platform."

Another social media editor at a prominent magazine called the Times' decision "a case of the pendulum swinging back toward the other side of the spectrum…prompted not by the newsroom leadership but from the public editor, whose honeymoon is quickly ending among the Twitter chattering class." Yesterday evening on Twitter there was ample conversation about Sullivan's increasingly vocal role at the Times.

"Now that’s not to say Margaret Sullivan doesn’t understand Twitter or Facebook," the social media editor said. "She’s made a great effort at working both into her job description, which is largely why she had built up so much goodwill in the first place. But this isn’t the first time in her short tenure that she’s assumed the role of the social media police, and it’s starting to wear on people."

While Rudoren told New York magazine she doesn't view the Times' decision as a punitive measure, the organization has done a poor job of framing the installation of a personal social editor as anything but just that. In her post, Sullivan makes a point of praising Rudoren's reportage, even citing internal sources that describe her work as exemplary, while a Times rep insisted Rudoren wasn't being punished. Still, the decision to assign her a full-time social media editor feels more like babysitting than anything else, given the generally long leash reporters there have.

As traditional media outlets move toward a fully digital future, many have enlisted programs to educate reporters about the pitfalls of social media and refresh them on the organization's standards and practices. Perhaps instead of framing an editor's presence in the social media process as a safeguard, the organization and public editor could have framed the intervention as an temporary educational process for an otherwise excellent reporter, rather than a sanction.

News has evolved well beyond the simple act of publishing articles and images. News organizations are opening up, and reporters are revealing more of the news-gathering process, and a big part of that is happening on social media. The Times has been for the most part a leader in this process and the organization, as well as its public editor, should be mindful not to undermine its role and reputation in the evolution of digital journalism.