Joshua Benton Talks With Dean Baquet About the New York Times and Twitter

From a story on by Joshua Benton headlined “The New York Times would really like its reporters to stop scrolling and get off Twitter (at least once in a while)”:

Enough with all the tweeting already!

That’s how I’d summarize The New York Times’ new guidelines on how its journalists use Twitter. This morning, in a series of memos from executive editor Dean Baquet and deputy managing editor Cliff Levy, the Times made it clear that it would like staffers to shoo away the little blue bird on their phones — or at least not feed it as often.

“I think if you take a look at some journalists,” Baquet told me this morning, “at The New York Times and elsewhere — how often they tweet, what they tweet, the importance of what they tweet, how much time they spend on it — you’ve got to ask yourself: If your role is to find out important facts and tell them to the world, is that the way you want to spend your day?”

As any Twitter user knows, there are lots of reasons to not be on Twitter. The Times’ argument seems to reduce down to a few points:

  • Twitter takes up too much of journalists’ time.
  • It warps their reporting by changing who they see as their audience and the feedback they get on their work.
  • It’s a major driver of harassment and abuse.
  • Bad tweets are a significant reputational threat to the Times and its staffers.

Translated into policy, this “reset” means that a social media presence “is now purely optional” for journalists. (It wasn’t mandatory before, but Baquet acknowledges that newsroom pressure to be on Twitter was real and significant.) Reporters can still be on Twitter, of course, but those who remain are encouraged “to meaningfully reduce how much time you’re spending on the platform, tweeting or scrolling, in relation to other parts of your job.”

The Times is also expanding its team of people devoted to protecting its journalists from abuse online (a group it calls the Threat Response Team) and investing further in security training and mental health resources.

Beyond that, today’s announcements are less about instituting new policies than reemphasizing some existing ones. Reporters should “strengthen our commitment to treating information [on Twitter] with the journalistic skepticism that we would any source, story or critic.” And every tweet “needs to reflect the values of The Times and be consistent with our editorial standards, social media guidelines and behavioral norms.”

“This is not an attack on Twitter,” Baquet said. “Twitter has tremendous value. We have readers there, we have people we want to hear. I thought it became outsized in its influence. I thought that some journalists were, you know, looking to Twitter for validation of their coverage. And I think that gave Twitter more power than, frankly, it deserved.”

Our interview, which is transcribed below, went in some interesting directions. I can visualize a lot of people nodding along when he criticizes Twitter’s all-consuming nature for some reporters and the idea that its influence has distorted some journalism in unfortunate ways. But I can also imagine many arguing that he understates the value — the necessity — of Twitter to many beats. (Will “I’m trying to be more thoughtful about how I engage online” be an acceptable answer when your editor asks why the Post and the Journal had a story and you didn’t?)

Others will argue that the feedback a reporter gets from Twitter users is far more diverse — ideologically, demographically — than what they get from reader emails or their sources. (Remember when the Times argued one reason it was fine to kill off its Public Editor position was that Twitter would fill any resulting complaint gaps?)

I appreciate the flexibility that these new guidelines offer. Reporters who were dragged kicking and screaming to Twitter can now leave without thinking their online silence will show up on their performance review. But a lot of journalists really like being on Twitter, and they don’t see their accounts as just another pipe through which their employer’s journalism can flow. That tension remains eternal.

There’s a lot in these memos, so I’m embedding the text of each below. (Double-click on any of them to expand to the complete text.) After that, my interview with Baquet, lightly edited for clarity.

BENTON: Why this change now? Was there a particular incident that led to this “reset”?

BAQUET: No, I think it evolved over time. What happened is we started to worry, I started to worry that Twitter had become too big a part of our journalistic lives. I was worried that some people were spending too much time on Twitter
This is not an attack on Twitter. Twitter has tremendous value. We have readers there, we have people we want to hear. I thought it became outsized in its influence. I thought that some journalists were, you know, looking to Twitter for validation of their coverage. And I think that gave Twitter more power than, frankly, it deserved.

And then you add to that the fact that people are often attacked on Twitter unfairly. It made us reach out. Rebecca Blumenstein is one of the senior leaders here, and she spent time talking to reporters, talking to editors. I talked to a lot of reporters myself, and a high percentage of them said they would love a reset.

You know, when I became editor, which was after the Innovation Report, we didn’t order people to get on Twitter, but we pushed them to. In fact, I can remember people pushing me to go on Twitter. I think that there were a bunch of people at the Times who thought we wanted them to live on Twitter as much as they do. And over time, we realized we didn’t want them to do so.

So there was no one prompt. I started to feel that Twitter’s influence in journalism, period, and in our journalism was too great.

Now, I want to reiterate the value of Twitter. You don’t want to run away from criticism. If there’s a place where there are a lot of people talking about your journalism, you should be aware of it. But you should not make that as large a force in your life. You should be on Twitter if you want to be on Twitter — you should just do it a lot less. And you should be reporting outside of Twitter a lot more. You should be looking for readers and the people who need our journalism in places other than Twitter — including getting out in the world and talking to people other than, you know, each other and people on Twitter. So it’s a chance to pull back and rethink how to deal with it.

BENTON: How would you characterize the negative influence that you think Twitter has had on some reporters’ journalism? Like, what direction does being on Twitter push reporters’ work toward?

BAQUET: Well, I would say one thing: It eats up too much time. I mean, there are journalists, at The New York Times and elsewhere, who tweet many, many, many, many, many times a day. Some people tweet about the minutiae of their lives. To me, that’s time not spent actually reporting. So that’s one of the dangers.The other danger is coming to believe that Twitter’s reaction to your coverage should be the primary way you regard the success or failure of your coverage. And I think that should not be Twitter’s place in a journalistic institution that aspires to be independent. Does that make sense?

BENTON: Yeah. I guess I was thinking, you know — when I look at, say, Media Twitter, the part of Twitter I’m most engaged in, I think it encourages a certain sort of insiderness. You’re interacting with the people who care about the subjects the most, who have the most passionate opinions about them.

BAQUET: That’s right. If you want to use Media Twitter as an example, you know, I don’t think Media Twitter is the appropriate judge of the quality of journalism. You can take it into account, but it shouldn’t be the only judge. And I think a lot of people in journalism write for Media Twitter, and I don’t think that’s appropriate.

BENTON: Just considering quantity, journalists get a lot of feedback from Twitter. And some of it is good feedback and some of it’s not — but it certainly is a lot. I get a lot more comments on my work there than I do from people leaving comments on our website, or sending me an email, or bumping into me on the street. What do you hope will replace Twitter’s space in the feedback that journalists get? Where do you want them to direct their attention, in terms of feedback?

BAQUET: I think they should be directing their attention more toward people they interview for stories. By the way, I get a tremendous amount of reader feedback, some of it critical and some of it praising. I get it by email, I get calls from readers. And I value that a great deal. I’m not saying they should ignore Twitter. I’m just saying they should say: Okay, this is one group of readers. But it’s not the only on

I want to stress one thing too, which is the part of the note that says that we also understand that our people have been attacked a great deal, and they often feel like we’re not there for them. And we need to be, so so we’ve come up with a pretty elaborate system to make people feel like we’re there for them. We want to protect them more.

The answer to your question, where else do you go other than Twitter — I don’t think there’s a perfect way to know how your story lands, to be honest. And I think one of the allures of Twitter for people, I think, was that it feels like true feedback — fast, real-time feedback. And my fear is, that’s true, but it’s not fully accurate feedback.

BENTON: It’s interesting to think of this in the context of newsrooms moving more to remote work, because when I worked in newspaper newsrooms, a lot of the best feedback you got was from the people who sat near you, who said, “Great story,” or “Hey, did you think about calling so and so for that?” If reporters are going to be working without other journalists around them, it makes sense that they’re going to be looking for alternate routes.

BAQUET: But it’s also not just the feedback part. I think if you take a look at some journalists, at The New York Times and elsewhere — how often they tweet, what they tweet, the importance of what they tweet, how much time they spend on it — you’ve got to ask yourself: If your role is to find out important facts and tell them to the world, is that the way you want to spend your day?

I also want to acknowledge Twitter is a big deal reporting tool, right? I mean, it’ll be hard to cover Ukraine without Twitter. So this is not attacking Twitter. This is like: Let’s just shrink its role in our lives. Let’s just put it in its appropriate perspective.

BENTON: A lot of these issues were raised in the back-and-forth between Taylor Lorenz and Maggie Haberman not long ago on the use of the word “brand” in journalism, and the idea of the reporter having their own individual brand. Twitter’s been an incredibly powerful way for reporters to build their brands. How do you think about the tension between a reporter’s brand and the Times’ brand, which might be its single most valuable asset? To what degree is the thinking behind this: We need to reduce the risk of the Times’ brand being tarnished by a stray tweet?

BAQUET: You know, I’m not going to get into the specifics of any case. I do think that the Times’ — I don’t love the word “brand,” so I’ll say “image,” “reputation” — I do think that errant tweets can significantly hurt the institution’s reputation. And I think they can also hurt a reporter’s reputation. And I think that there have certainly been instances, in The New York Times and elsewhere, where people got into fights or tweeted unfortunate things that hurt the institution, and that hurt them. One of our goals is to make that happen less frequently. I don’t think of that as “brand.” I think that if I’m a reporter and I tweet something unfortunate, or tweet something that’s too opinionated, or tweet something that is even nasty, it hurts me. And if it hurts me, it hurts The New York Times too.

BENTON: The language in today’s memo, which I think is consistent with the previous social media guidelines, says “your work on social media needs to reflect the values of The Times and be consistent with our editorial standards, social media guidelines, and behavioral norms.

I’m curious — whatever the line is that a reporter shouldn’t cross, do you see that line being uniform across the newsroom, or is different for different people, depending on what that person is covering? For instance, if we’re talking about someone’s tweet about politics, is the line different for a White House reporter than it is for a sports reporter, or a developer in the newsroom, or someone else whose job doesn’t have a particular connection to politics?

BAQUET: That’s a really good question. Not really. I mean, I think it’s bizarre when a reporter who knows absolutely nothing about the White House tweets about the White House. I think that’s a little bizarre. But no, I think the rule should apply to everybody.

You asked about the timing and whether this was consistent with the previous guidelines. I think that what’s happened is that, since we wrote the original rules — and since we encouraged people to go on Twitter, which we really did if you go back and look at what we did after the Innovation Report— a lot has happened. But the main thing that’s happened is it’s assumed too big a role in our lives.

BENTON: I went back and checked, of course, and I saw that you’ve posted a total of two tweets from your Twitter account. I noticed the time they were both from June 2014, which was a few weeks after you got this job. What was the motivation behind that? Was it that you were being pressured by some forces within the organization? And what made you stop?

BAQUET: I was trying to — it was part of our efforts to encourage people to be on social media, because that’s where we were in 2014. We’re in a different place now. I reserve the right for us to change. In 2014, you know, the Innovation Report had just come out, and it essentially said that we were not engaged enough in social media. And my tweeting was part of an effort to do that.

I stopped tweeting, mainly, because I didn’t have time. And also because, frankly, I always wondered whether editors had enough to say on Twitter. I feel like I live my life through reporters.

BENTON: One other element in the memo is the notice that “tweets or subtweets” — I just love that there’s now a New York Times memo about subtweets.

BAQUET: It’s the modern New York Times, man.

BENTON: “Tweets or subtweets that attack, criticize or undermine the work of your colleagues are not allowed.” I’m wondering how you’re defining colleagues. Is that the Times newsroom? Does that include Opinion? Does that include reporters at peer news organizations? Who are the colleagues here?

BAQUET: In this case, “colleagues” means everybody who works at The New York Times? For us, it’s everybody. I do think we should start to ask ourselves next whether — it’s a trickier line, you know, criticizing peer news organizations. I do not like it when somebody at The New York Times criticizes somebody at The Washington Post. I don’t do that in any setting — it makes me uncomfortable when people do that. It’s probably a little more complicated issue. There are occasions, for instance, in which, you know people in Opinion actually respond to columnists for the Post or elsewhere, and they have disagreements that sometimes feel within their realm. I would love to talk to Katie. So I don’t like it when people attack people at other news organizations, but I think I just need, we need to just think a little bit more about that.

BENTON: So, for example, when the Tom Cotton op-ed was published, a number of newsroom staffers tweeted statements criticizing Opinion for running it. Is that something that would be not allowed under this policy?

BAQUET: I’m probably not going to go there. I’m probably going to hope — I’m probably going to say I hope that something like that does not happen again. But I’m probably not going to get into specifics.

BENTON: If people are spending less time on Twitter, is there any other online venue that you would like people to be spending more time on? For example, a lot of reporters get pressured to be more active on Facebook, since there are many more readers on Facebook than on Twitter.

BAQUET: What I would like reporters to do — and by the way, I want to say, there are many exceptions, somebody like David Fahrenthold uses Twitter as an amazing reporting tool. But I would like the time you don’t spend on Twitter to be spent reporting. Finding stuff out. If somebody were to say, “Okay, I was spending too much time on Twitter. How does the New York Times want me to spend my time?” I would say: Go find some stuff out. Go do some reporting.

BENTON: The memo has a statement that — and again, it’s consistent with the previous policy — editors will be watching your social media presence to make sure it follows the guidelines. How frequent has it been, over the past few years, for an editor to have to engage in a discussion of some sort with a reporter over something they tweeted? Is it frequent? Is it a rare case?

BAQUET: It’s pretty frequent. It’s pretty frequent. It’s pretty frequent. I don’t mean it’s like — we’re not running around like cops, looking for errant tweets. But there are enough instances like that.

But to me, the main purpose of what we’re trying to do is not to set up an enforcement regime. It’s really to say to people: We think it’s become too much a part of our lives, and we need to not have it be as important a part of our lives, right? Tweet less, tweet more thoughtfully, and devote more time to reporting.

BENTON: Or as the slogan goes: Never tweet. That’s another option.

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