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How The NY Times New Social-Media Policy Overreaches

Years ago, when I was a young reporter working for a New England newspaper, I was told, more than once, that our city editor had "the personality of a door knob." This was meant as a compliment. Being colorless was a virtue, a sign of trustworthiness. We reporters were supposed to be quiet and relatively affectless. Since we served unadorned facts as dutiful drones, we were supposed to be interchangeable (after you "covered" schools for a year, you might be assigned to sports, or science). So we all dressed in the same tie-askew manner and called each other by our first names (pretending not to see the real power differentials among us). In that place, "writing job," the term for work that was actually well-written, could be a pejorative term: It suggested that you might have a personality of your own, that you might be a disturbing blob of color on the gray edifice.

In the age of Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr etcetera, this newsroom culture probably sounds as remote as the Soviet Union (to which it bears a faint resemblance). But this grinding bureaucratic mindset is not yet resting on the ash-heap of history. In fact, it lives on at The New York Times. And its cold not-dead hand has just risen up to smack around the freelance writer Andrew Goldman.

Goldman writes the Q&A interviews for The New York Times Magazine (for which, full disclosure, I have written now and again over the years). Lately there's been talk that he has a problem with female interview subjects. The other day for instance the novelist Jennifer Weiner tweeted this criticism: "Saturday am. Iced coffee. NYT mag. See which actress Andrew Goldman has accused of sleeping her way to the top. #traditionsicoulddowithout". Unfortunately Goldman apparently went batsh*t, and tweeted back: "Little Freud in me thinks you would have liked at least to have had opportunity to sleep way to top."

Which was, obviously, just awful—rude, stupid, unprovoked, juvenile and foolish. After getting some angry reply tweets and what seems to have been some strong talking-to's by his editors at the magazine and his wife, Goldman tweeted that he was sorry and Weiner accepted his apology. There, you might think, the matter rested: Man makes ass of himself before universe (and inadvertently lends credibility to claim that he has a problem with women), is brought to senses, apologizes. Case closed, right?

Nope. Enter the Times' new Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan. Her job is to be the "readers' representative," responding to complaints and comments and giving people a chance to interrogate the Times about its lapses. I'd interpret that to mean Goldman's Q&As are in her bailiwick. But she decided that his tweets were too. Moreover, she hinted, with Brezhnevian subtlety, that public-upbraiding-followed-by-apology was not enough. In her first blog post about the incident, she wrote that Goldman would get a chance to do his job better in the future, adding "given his misbehavior on Twitter and his status as a highly replaceable (emphasis added) freelancer, I think his editors are extraordinarily generous to give it to him."

Goldman's editor had loyally defended his writer, writing to Sullivan: "My feeling is that he had an unfortunate outburst, and that he will learn from it." But today comes the news that other Times powers-that-be think more as Sullivan does. In this new post today, Sullivan reports that Goldman has been suspended from writing his column for four weeks. The news comes at the end of a post reporting that the Times has reminded all its writers that anything they do on social media should be considered a reflection on the Times.

I bet that's going to be a problem. After all, it's not just newspapers' business models that have been swept away by the Internets. It's also that old gray culture that extolled doorknob personalities. Much as I'd enjoy seeing Facebook posts cast in Times style ("At My Aunt's Funeral, Tears and Laughter"; "An Outing for the Younger Set Brings A Reporter to the Playground"), I don't think normal 21st-century people—especially freelancers—will stand for it. Most of us, I think, are pretty used to the idea that our Twitter, Facebook, Timblr etc lives are our own. If we tweet rudely or wrongly, we expect to be enlightened or corrected or taken out to the woodshed by the community that reads our words. Not by someone up somebody else's chain of command, waving a handbook.

Sullivan, though, thinks the highly replaceable freelancers will toe the line. That tells me it's still 1979 in her office. In the latest post, she gives herself away with this unintentionally funny line, explaining why she thinks the paper can demand that non-employees think of the Times every time they tweet: "And unstated is the simple truth that The Times has the upper hand here. It decides, often on a case-by-case basis, which freelancers to assign. Assessing their judgment on social media is very likely to be a part of that decision-making."

There they are, all the old newsroom assumptions I recall from decades ago: Freelancers are desperate, freelancers are interchangeable, and freelancers will do anything to bask under the fluorescent lights of our cubicles, even for a moment.

Does she know what the Times actually pays freelancers? If she did, she'd know that writing for the Times is, for most if not all, a loss-leader. You do it in the same spirit that a Romney might donate a horse to charity or a normal person might spend a day working for a soup kitchen. You do it for cachet, attention, prestige, good vibes. As a general rule, it's worth the trouble. I've always found it to be so. But the prospect of being monitored all over the web for Times-appropriateness changes that calculus.

And, sure, if someone refuses to write for the Times because of a policy, then someone else will do it. But in the parts of the building where it isn't 1979, editors will suffer for those refusals. Because writers, unlike replaceable cogs, aren't interchangeable. I think some good ones will decide that their social-media lives are their own.

ADDENDUM: For more proof that Sullivan is a newsroom fossil who doesn't "get" blogs, see this new post on Nate Silver. It has a new subject but sings the same song: The Times ought to be able to ensure obedience to its code of facelessness, from all who write for it—even those whom it does not deign to put on the payroll, and even those whose reputations don't need the Times brand to shine. She can't imagine a world in which the Times needs Silver as much as he needs the Times. But that is the world as it is now. Maybe he should threaten to take his blog elsewhere...

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby

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