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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 08:10 PM ET, 11/29/2012

New York Times reporter acquires social-media minder


(Photo Credit: Said Khatib Photo)

Jodi Rudoren explains how the New York Times has equipped her with a minder for her social media activity. "I work with an editor on a strategy on posts," says Rudoren. Does the editor review each and every tweet? "That's what working with an editor means. They're going to look at it. We'll decide together what to do," she says.

Is she OK with all that? Yes. "You know, in this beat, one can't be too careful," she says. The idea behind the close supervision was this: "Let's give her some support. That's the intent and I appreciate that," she told the Erik Wemple Blog this afternoon in a phone chat.

Rudoren's hyper-sensitive beat is Jerusalem bureau chief, a perch from which she immersed in the recent Gaza Strip hostilities. She covered the conflict passionately, or perhaps too passionately, to judge from the social-media jams in which she put herself. As discussed in a recent column by New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, Rudoren committed a social media gaffe trifecta:

[D]uring the Gaza conflict, she wrote one Facebook post in which she described Palestinians as "ho-hum" about the death of loved ones, wrote of their "limited lives" and, in another, said she shed her first tears in Gaza over a letter from an Israeli family.

Rudoren took a pounding for those mistakes, which she clearly recognizes as such. "Poor choices," she says. Instead of "ho-hum," Rudoren says she should have said "steadfast or resilient." Yes, such edits would have done wonders. Had she made them, she wouldn't have ended up with a minder.

The New York Times stands by its solution to Rudoren's candid/reckless expression of impressions. "There's nothing strange or earthshattering, in my view, about how she and her editors plan to handle the social media component of her journalism," writes Phil Corbett, the paper's standards editor. "Editors on various desks, including our social media team, have worked in a variety of ways to offer guidance, support and suggestions for reporters who are integrating social media into their work. Occasionally we've even had to point out when we thought someone had stumbled, though it hasn't been very often. This doesn't mean we copy edit anyone's tweets, but it's good to have discussions and feedback as people go in new directions. That isn't true only of Jodi, though her beat is under more of a microscope than anyone's."

Rudoren did indeed violate Corbett's standard for good social media conduct. As he told Poynter a while back: "[I]n general our message is that people should be thoughtful." "Ho-hum" isn't thoughtful.

A social-media minder isn't thoughtful either.

It's not that the New York Times shouldn't have addressed Rudoren's overreaching; clearly it should have. Nor is it that she needn't be more careful; clearly she should be. It's just that social media participation resists chaperoning. Posting to Twitter and Facebook is a one-on-one pursuit between journalist/commentator and technology. Throw in a layer of mediation, and it no longer smells or feels like a tweet or a Facebook posting. Things freeze up, which is pretty much what's happened to Rudoren's Twitter feed over the past couple of days.

The solution of the New York Times is classic New York Times. If there's one thing the paper does to eternal effect, it's editing. Editing is why people like the Erik Wemple Blogger set aside precious hours of their Sundays to engage with perfectly arrayed words. Editing is why even quick-tempo posts on Nytimes.com have a polished feel to them. Editing is why so many competing journalists pick through the paper and curse, Why didn't I think of that? "The brand promise of the New York Times is built on editing," says David Carr, the paper's media critic and a prolific Twitter user (and close friend).

And so if Jodi Rudoren goes a bit rogue on social media, it's time for more editing!

Too bad that editing Rudoren's tweets is not practical--how, exactly, does this work? Nor duplicable--if Rudoren needs a minder, might other staffers? Nor finite--just when does she regain her social-media latitude? Yet this "solution" could well send a signal to other New York Times tweeters. "I'm worried about it," says Carr. "While it's true she may have posted something that made people uncomfortable, she's on a really difficult beat. In general a chat between her and her editor could have quietly resolved things." Despite the paper's editing standards, Carr wonders "if we're moving toward supervised social media."

Public Editor Sullivan termed Rudoren's social-media minder a "necessary step," a judgment that continues a tradition among public editors, ombudspeople and others of wagging their fingers at the various and occasional social-media excesses of prominent journalists. (Disclosure: I've done a bit of this as well.) The regrettable impact of the serial scoldings is to communicate the skewed impression that the big problem confronting news outlets is mis-tweeting employees.

When in fact it's social-media slackers. Scroll down this list of New York Times tweeps on Muckrack.com. There's an army of folks who clock in short, far short and woefully short of Rudoren's 8,500-odd followers. Those who round out the depths of the list needn't worry about drawing a beating from the paper's public editor for writing something offensive. That's because they're not writing offensive material--or boring material, either. "The point is that there are so many other people in this building who don't even bother, don't even try," says a New York Times staffer. How 'bout assigning some minders to those folks? Tweet, tweet, tweet!!!!

Assistant Managing Editor Jim Roberts, whose portfolio includes digital stuff, says that social media engagement is "hugely important," though not the "highest priority for our staff. The highest priority is committing good journalism" across the paper's various platforms. That said, Roberts boasts about a killer social media team that proselytizes for Twitter and Facebook participation, among other forms of reader involvement. To watch Roberts's own Twitter feed is to surmise that he gets paid 140 characters at a time. He has compiled north of 65,000 followers. "I wanted to demonstrate to other people, to lead by example," he says. "I'm careful when I do it." He's a neverminder.

By  |  08:10 PM ET, 11/29/2012

Tags:  The New York Times

 
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