I’m late to this round of a discussion that’s been going on intermittently since at least when I started advocating Twitter’s use by journalists in 2008. But I was tied up Monday when Mathew Ingram and some New York Times staffers discussed whether journalists need to use Twitter (on Twitter, of course). Ingram then blogged about the issue. The discussion was prompted by Buzzfeed’s “Quick Tour Of The New York Times’ Twitter Graveyard,” which exposed and mocked some Times staffers for their weak presence on Twitter, including Executive Editor Dean Baquet, who has tweeted twice. Update: Baquet has responded to this post.
Baquet at least has a photo for his avatar. Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel showed 13 Times staffers’ accounts with Twitter’s generic egg avatar, which is like shouting, “Someone made me start a Twitter account! There, done!”
Before I continue my criticism of the Times, I should note that the Times has some outstanding Twitter users, too many to call out here, but I’ll just mention Nicholas Kristof as an example of a Times staffer who would excel at his job without using Twitter but is even better at it because he excels at Twitter. On the whole, the Times is better than most newsrooms at using Twitter. But the Times never aspires just to be better than most. And the Times should aspire to be the best in its use of Twitter and any other valuable tool for journalists.
The “graveyard” that Buzzfeed mocked is absolutely a symptom of the Times culture problems described in the Innovation report that created so much stir earlier this year. And the continued weak presence by so many Times editors and staffers on Twitter is a fair, if incomplete, indicator of the staff’s response to the call to innovate.
Every single excuse Times staffers, or others, gave Ingram had about one grain of truth to it, but still was just an excuse. The excuses — which I won’t repeat here; you can read some in Mathew’s Storify — are as absurd as if reporters tried to make excuses for not taking notes. I’ve been in some situations where I couldn’t take notes, and I was able to do my job. And perhaps one in a million reporters (and, by the way, there aren’t a million reporters) has such an incredible, perfect memory that she doesn’t have to take notes. But journalists should take notes. And journalists should use Twitter. Actively.
Maybe a handful of journalists, more than one in a million but less than one in a thousand, excel so well at other digital skills or at traditional skills that it’s immaterial that they haven’t mastered Twitter. But here’s how Twitter is important beyond its everyday usefulness to journalists, even busy editors running huge newsrooms: It’s the best indicator in journalism today of someone who is refusing to embrace change. Using Twitter doesn’t ensure that you’re embracing change and racing into the digital future. But refusing to use Twitter actively is a certain sign that you think change is someone else’s job.
I’ve visited more than 100 newsrooms in the Twitter age, and observed more from afar. The top editor’s embrace of Twitter, moderate use of Twitter or refusal to use Twitter is always reflected to some degree in the staff’s use of Twitter and in the staff’s broader embrace of innovation.
Just last month, the Times embarrassed itself when Alessandra Stanley (one of the Twitter corpses noted in Buzzfeed’s graveyard) wrote an insulting piece about Shonda Rhimes that three editors failed to notice problems with. When criticism (from Rhimes herself and many others) erupted on Twitter, Stanley responded with a flippant remark through a Times spokesperson that insulted her critics’ intelligence with a reference to Twitter’s character limit that expressed a clear view of the social media platform as shallow:
The whole point of the piece — once you read past the first 140 characters — is to praise Shonda Rhimes for pushing back so successfully on a tiresome but insidious stereotype.
But the reaction to Stanley’s insensitivity was not about Twitter and its brevity. Public Editor Margaret Sullivan recounted long, impassioned emails that she received about the hurtful nature of Stanley’s writing (her protest notwithstanding, Stanley defined Rhimes’ success against a tiresome and irrelevant stereotype; the shallowness of Stanley’s own work was best illustrated by Melissa Harris-Perry’s parody, depicting Aaron Sorkin as an angry white man). Baquet gave Sullivan a vague response that indicated he didn’t fully appreciate the emotional reaction to the piece. I’m doubtful that either one of them did more than glance at the #LessClassicallyBeautiful hashtag, which would have helped them understand the offensive nature of a Stanley line that was well beyond the story’s first 140 characters. In addition to helping educate them about the Times’ offense in that case, browsing the hashtag would have helped these Twitter evaders understand the platform’s value for listening to the public and engaging with it. They might have learned the power and depth of communication that comes 140 characters at a time. I can’t imagine either of them responding to the criticism as weakly as they did if they read and truly understood the reaction on the hashtag.
Don’t take my word that Twitter is important to innovation in journalism. Check out the Times innovation report. It mentioned Twitter 18 times. You have to wonder how much the top editors understood those references. Generally, they expect someone else to figure out Twitter. The 11 news-side editors on the Times masthead have more personal accounts with generic egg avatars (at least three; I couldn’t find one editor) than it has editors who have tweeted more than 1,000 times (two). Kristof has tweeted nearly 18,000 times, more than three times as many tweets as the whole masthead combined.
Here are some of the messages an editor who’s trying to lead innovation sends to the staff when he or she doesn’t use Twitter actively:
- You can delegate innovation to someone else.
- You can innovate without changing your routine.
- You can innovate without learning something new.
- You can innovate without dealing with things that annoy you.
- You can innovate from your comfort zone.
And here’s the truth: You can’t.
I welcome a response. I will use the Times website’s clunky contact form to invite response from Baquet, Stanley and Kristof. I have no faith that people read those messages, though. I have an email address for Sullivan and will invite her response as well and ask her to pass my message along to the others. I will invite all of them to respond on Twitter, but I don’t expect Baquet or Stanley to see my tweet, for obvious reasons. If you know either of them and would tell them I welcome their response, I would appreciate your help. I will add any responses I get here. Or if someone sends me a long response that merits a separate guest post, I will link to it from here. As noted above, Baquet has responded.
Thanks to Kristof for this response (not surprising that he responded first):
Thanks to Sullivan for this response: