'The New York Times' Facebook problem

An edict from the higher-ups to limit the rank and file's social media interaction leaves me wondering whether the brass realizes the import of that decision.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read

I'm an unabashed New York Times fan boy. Warts and all, it remains the best edited daily newspaper in this country. Disagree? Then come find me on Twitter and let's mix it up. (My handle is "coopeydoop").

You won't have a chance to do the same with many Times reporters and editors--on Twitter or any other social network, for that matter. Batting it back and forth with the hoi polloi just isn't part of the drill. Not, mind you, because they lack for opinions or have no stomach for engagement.

The Poynter Institute reposted the text of a memo from Craig Whitney, the paper's assistant managing editor, to his newsroom, in which he urges extreme caution in how Times employees use Facebook and other social-networking sites. For starters:

"One of them is that outsiders can read your Facebook page, and that personal blogs and "tweets" represent you to the outside world just as much as an 800-word article does. If you have or are getting a Facebook page, leave blank the section that asks about your political views, in accordance with the Ethical Journalism admonition to do nothing that might cast doubt on your or The Times's political impartiality in reporting the news. Remember that although you might get useful leads by joining a group on one of these sites, it will appear on your page, connoting that you "joined" it -- potentially complicated if it is a political group, or a controversial group."

Whitney is an accomplished Times veteran whose work I've admired over the years. But this memo sums up some of the very reasons why so many believe the mainstream media is doomed to irrelevance.

The Times achieved primacy in American journalism by getting the story (usually) right and delivering the news with depth and nuance. By itself, the formula that worked so well for the Times in the 20th century may not be enough in the 21st. That's because the fragmentation of media has created a multiplicity of voices on the Internet, some good, others less so, where the authority of the Times depends on more than a prototypical article.

So it is that the decision to separate the Times from its public strikes me as completely arbitrary. What's more, it makes for an utterly boring one-way conversation--and that's no conversation at all. Whitney may not want the chief White House correspondent riffing in public about the failings of the 43rd president, but how about a little give? For instance, I'd be shocked if Frank Rich does not think George Bush was an abject idiot. Or that William Kristol does not believe Bill Clinton remains a skirt-chasing hippy hedonist. Seems they also ought to have the green light to tweet to their hearts' content.

But it's not just Facebook and Twitter. Consider the following:

"Be careful not to write anything on a blog or a personal Web page that you could not write in The Times -- don't editorialize, for instance, if you work for the News Department. Anything you post online can and might be publicly disseminated, and can be twisted to be used against you by those who wish you or The Times ill -- whether it's text, photographs, or video. That includes things you recommend on TimesPeople or articles you post to Facebook and Digg, content you share with friends on MySpace, and articles you recommend through TimesPeople."

In other words, don't write anything that's passionate or pointed in ways that might stir people beyond what the Times provides in its news columns. Pardon my sarong but that's like serving up a diet of rice cakes to people hungry for General Tso's chicken.