Not having a draconian Twitter policy has helped The New York Times thrive, according to a panel of reporters speaking at an Online News Association event in New York. The panelists said they use the social media platform for a variety of pretty common reasons: breaking news, garnering pageviews, connecting with readers and reinforcing the brand.
Simon S. Oliver, senior styles Web producer at the Times, said she uses the platform to alert readers that the Times has much quicker and more in-depth coverage of Fashion Week compared to other outlets. “Because of readers' perceptions over the years, they think to go to Style.com and many of our other competitors first. I've used Twitter over the last few seasons to let people know 'we have what you're looking for and we have it now.'”
Oliver also said Twitter is a great way to add backstage insight into the closed fashion industry. “We can give you that peek that other people can't give you.”
Brian Stelter, a media reporter at the Times, uses Twitter to improve reporting and “hopefully to improve the reader's relationship with the institution.” He added: “I like to think that every time I interact with a reader, they are 0.01% more likely to pay for the Times ― especially as we put up a paywall later in the winter or the spring ― maybe, just maybe, they are a little more willing to pay up.”
A 'hands-off' tweet policy
Reporters seem to have a lot of leeway at the Times, developing their own tweet strategy without micromanagement. Other news outlets have taken a more hands-on approach to the medium, even barring employees from using it (though that seems to be changing when conservative news outlets like Bloomberg are talking about tweeting).
Yet sometimes Times reporters are reined in. Oliver acknowledged instances when an editor has deleted tweets the editor found to be out of line ― which panelists agreed is a huge no-no. Just like you wouldn't delete a story, you shouldn't delete a tweet.
The experience is another sign that news organizations still struggle with the ethics and correction practices for social media. “I wish Twitter would come up with some sort of correction mechanism,” noted Liz Heron, social media editor at the Times.
Despite the ambiguity around Twitter for journalism, Stelter noted it's better to “error on the side of personality.”
“One of the best things the Times has done in the past few years is have a hands-off policy toward Twitter," he said. "People screw up every once in awhile, but that's OK. We have to be able to push the boundaries of what we can get away with.”
Though Stelter's noted personality still can't creep up in a news story, on Twitter he has more freedom to blend news and personality in his tweets, particularly depending on the time of day. “More and more we program ourselves online the way that a [TV] network does,” he said.
Stelter and Heron said other news organizations can learn from not over-controlling social media.
“At the Times we've done a pretty good job of not putting draconian guidelines out there like a lot of organizations have and I'm really thankful for that ― I think it's allowed us to blossom,” Heron said.
At the same time, there's a lot of conversations about social media, and the Times has the benefit of having a standards editor around when journalists have questions. Understanding the platform is a skill that will just gradually become ingrained in journalists.
“I like to think about [tweeting] like being up on a panel," Heron said. "You can be conversational, you can be funny, you're not writing a story ― but you're still not going to say anything that gets you in trouble.”