David Carr, the legendary Timesman who made this column a destination, told me back in 2012 that he kept a “helicopter on the roof” of The New York Times Building in case he needed to escape. After all, he had been taking shots at media moguls, including, occasionally, his own bosses. That helicopter, he said, was his Twitter account, and it gave him the power, if needed, to flee The Times and take his followers — more than 300,000 when he died in 2015.
Twitter has occupied an uncomfortable place between journalists and their bosses for more than a decade. It offers journalists both a newswire and a direct line back into the news cycle. But it has also set off a tug of war between the voice of the brand and of the individual.
More staid newsrooms, like The Wall Street Journal and Reuters, have to varying degrees barred journalists from breaking news and developing big voices on the service, while some newer and more ideological outlets, like Vox and The Intercept, encourage and benefit from their journalists’ social media presence. Caught in the uncomfortable middle are the defining American news brands — The Times, The Washington Post, CNN and NBC — where managers alternate between sending irritated emails and biting their tongues, and journalists marvel and complain at the question of who gets away with what on Twitter and who gets in trouble. One of those who crossed that hazy line was a freelance editor at The Times, Lauren Wolfe, who was recently fired.
“I sometimes feel like every editor in chief has a phone on their desk with an open line to every other editor in chief and collectively they’re one bad tweet away from — ‘OK, that’s it, let’s shut this whole thing down,’” said Janine Gibson, the head of digital platforms and projects at The Financial Times in London. “You feel like you’ve escaped if you can have a day on Twitter when you’re not involved in some massive row.”
President Trump’s extreme behavior at the end of his term seemed to bring about a temporary truce in some of the battles over Twitter. Even the most old-fashioned editors had little problem calling out the president’s blunt lies, or describing the viciousness of the mob that assaulted the Capitol. But the arrival of President Biden, and his promise of restoring normalcy, generated a wave of stern reminders that journalists need to keep their opinions to themselves.
Newsrooms themselves are struggling to determine their own identities in a polarized nation and a subscription economy. And many of the battles over Twitter are really battles over journalism itself, and over whose perspective and judgment is central in an era when the country and the industry are wrestling with big questions of race and gender and power.
The easy, and often silly, part of this is a kind of squeamishness at individual voices that clash sharply with the brand. Olivia Nuzzi, a reporter for New York Magazine, recalled that when The Washington Post offered her a job in its Style section in 2018, its editors promised her the freedom to be herself on the page and said they wouldn’t expect her to conform to a stuffy newspaper ethos.
She didn’t quite trust that assurance, she recalled, and so, as she considered the offer, she “tried to test their limits by tweeting increasingly insane stuff.” The tweets were mostly profane, if fair, reactions to statements by Mr. Trump. And sure enough, the day after a particularly colorful response to a White House statement on Saudi Arabia, a top editor wrote to warn her that her tweets, were she a Postie, “would have necessitated our having a conversation.” The editor attached a document titled “profanity social media for olivia.pdf,” which, she said, factored into her decision not to take the job.
But the deeper questions are about what it means for journalists to be, and seem, fair. There’s an argument raging about whether news organizations, and their reporters, ought to keep their opinions to themselves to avoid being seen as biased. Many top editors still seem to believe that the less said on social media, the better. The other side, as Wesley Lowery of CBS recently argued, is that readers should be asked to trust in “an objective process” of journalism that separates both reporters’ views and readers’ biases from judgment about their published work. (He also told me that, while Twitter is occasionally a valuable reporting tool, he mostly thinks that everyone would probably be better off if they stopped tweeting. “If I ran a newsroom,” he said, “I’d both tell my people I wasn’t going to come after them for stupid tweets and also basically beg them to tweet as little as possible.”)
This often feels like a moral or ethical debate, sometimes played out in caricature on Twitter itself. But the question of how to get your readers to trust you, in my view, isn’t really moral; it’s tactical, and empirical. Part of the reason reporters use social media is about sources. Some reporters elicit information from sources by keeping their cards close to their chests. Others develop sources on social media by broadcasting their views and finding allies. But newsroom conversations about bias and trust tend, oddly, to leave out the audience. So last week, I persuaded a polling firm, Morning Consult, to survey Americans on, more or less, the question of whether we should all shut up on social media.
The findings were mixed. Asked directly whether “journalists have a responsibility to keep their opinions private, even on their personal social media,” a majority of those polled agreed, by a margin of almost 2-1.
But the details of the poll of 3,423 people, with a margin of error of 2 percent, show deeper division. Given the choice between two alternatives, 41 percent agreed with the statement, “I trust journalists more if they keep their political and social views private,” while 36 percent agreed with the opposite statement, “I trust journalists more if they are open and honest about their political and social views.”
The responses weren’t uniform across groups. More of those who identified themselves as Black than those in other groups said they’d trust journalists more if they knew what the journalists thought, while conservatives were more likely than liberals to trust journalists who keep their views private.
Other survey responses suggested that, perhaps, just perhaps, journalists are living on a more Twitter-obsessed planet than normal people. When the pollsters showed a version of a tweet from Ms. Wolfe that caused her Twitter trouble, the muddled response made it clear that ordinary Americans had no idea what the fuss was about.
Newsrooms might benefit from acknowledging that some of what appears to be debates about Twitter is more about their own corporate identities and choices. Ms. Wolfe told me that while she thought The Times had been unfair in how it characterized her dismissal, she also didn’t object to the paper’s choosing to have a social media policy. “The solution for me is to not work at a place where I have to pretend that I don’t have opinions,” she said.
The other, and perhaps more ominous, tension for the big newsrooms is the one that Mr. Carr spotted in 2012. Social media has shifted the balance of power in the same direction it has long been moving in everything from entertainment to sports: away from management and big brands, and toward the people who used to be called reporters, but now sometimes get referred to as “talent.” Reporters have every incentive to build big social media followings. It’s a path to television contracts, book deals, job offers and raises. And that can be in tension with what their employers want. (In case you’re interested, here are the Times reporters with more than 500,000 Twitter followers, ranked: Maggie Haberman, Marc Stein, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Jenna Wortham, Peter Baker and Nikole Hannah-Jones.)
The new social media stardom has also created a sense in newsrooms that there are different sets of rules for different people. As I’ve reported about newsroom tensions in this column over the past year, one thing that keeps coming up is a sense that stars get away with a kind of social media presence that low-profile workers would get in big trouble for. Some of this is justifiable. “There has to be some flexibility” in how social media policies are enforced, The Times’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, told me in an email last week. “Some people have jobs that give them more flexibility because they live in the world of commentary or opinion,” he said.
But some of these tensions just reflect the shifting balance of power, and the fact that journalistic institutions are increasingly having to reckon with the power of their stars. American newspapers, in particular, used to benefit from the fact that journalists were mostly interchangeable to readers and easily replaced. Social media stars can bring with them a devoted audience, credibility and revenue from talent-first media businesses like events and podcasts. But they also create a situation where their employer may need them more than they need their employer, an uncomfortable dynamic in many newsrooms.
“Star reporters and anchors get away with so much more than lower-ranking reporters do,” said Yashar Ali, an independent reporter whose huge Twitter following means, he said, that he gets hundreds of requests from other journalists every day to tweet about their stories. “It’s largely because the heads of news organizations treat their stars as well as they can and they see not complaining about tweets as another perk.”
I suspect that successful news organizations of the future will find ways to align these dynamics: to share in their employees’ success and to add enough value that their stars stick around. Twitter’s recent acquisition of a newsletter company, Revue, could point in that direction. Revue has been focused on tools for publishers, as well as for individuals, and you could imagine a situation in which both journalists and publishers can share in the value of that promotion.
In the meantime, I will conclude simply by thanking you for reading me each week, and, if you do, for subscribing to The Times. And please follow me on Twitter at @benyt.
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