Washington Post’s (Endless) Social Media Guidelines: Progress, but Not Enough


(Note: My original title for this post was much harsher on the Post and its guidelines than it should have been, and did not reflect what I wrote below. That’s regrettable and I apologize for it.)

The Washington Post’s newly public “Guidelines for Digital Publishing” are more than 5,200 words long. That’s about 5,100 words too many.

This is not an attack on what the Post, which labored for many months before giving birth to this behemoth, has put together. The guidelines are, in fact, an interesting examination of how technology’s collision with journalism has forced journalists to rethink what they do and how they do it. The document offers examples that would be excellent teaching tools for journalism students and working journalists alike — and will be interesting reading for a public that has little understanding of what goes into journalism or how organizations consider, often deeply, the consequences of their deadline-driven decisions.

But the document, a copy of which I received before it was made public, starts off with an admonition that makes the entire exercise a bit weird:

These guidelines for digital publishing are meant to guide Washington Post journalism as we deliver news and information in a rapidly changing media environment. We consider these guidelines to be a “living document” that we will continually modify and update based on feedback from our journalists, from our readers, and from our perceptions of our changing needs.These guidelines supplement but do not supplant the established principles that govern our print publications in the Post stylebook. Because the circumstances under which information is obtained and reported vary widely from one case to the next, these guidelines should not be understood as establishing hard and fast rules or as covering every situation that might arise. You should consult with an editor if you have a question about how these guidelines should be applied in specific circumstances.

Boiled down, this seems to say: “The guidelines don’t actually mean too much, because when it comes to difficult situations we’ll just make case-by-case decisions.”

Still, it’s progress. The meat of the guidelines, reflecting the Post’s remarkably rigid view of its world, won’t surprise. The paper is essentially telling its journalists to remain professional even as they attempt to take best advantage of the new tools now available to us all in the social media era. Some of the examples tell me the newspaper is overly cautious, but again that’s not shocking given the organization and its longtime style.

I’ve had a copy of this document for months, and held up posting about it after the newspaper said it was being revised. The revisions are minor. (One absolutely hilarious change — part of a discussion of “Taste/Tone” — modifies the word “shit” to “s–t.” Really.)

The “living document” language (new in the final draft) is intriguing, and it suggests a strategy the Post might have used to develop its guidelines: It might have posted an early draft online, and then invited its readers and others who care about the newspaper and journalism to offer their own ideas. Instead, of course, the organization kept its own counsel.

The Post could do better, now that the document is in the public sphere, by taking seriously what it says it wants from the rest of us. Not only should the paper genuinely invite feedback and suggestions, but all subsequent changes should be easy to see and understand, annotated and explained as part of a longer conversation we all can have about the topics raised here.

In the end, I can’t help contrasting the Post’s endless semi-rules with the ones posted by John Paton, CEO of the Journal Register Co., a small newspaper chain that may be doing more to adapt to the new world than any other traditional media company. (Paton can do this, in part, because he took over a company coming out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, which gave him some running room to experiment in ways the Post undoubtedly can’t even imagine.) Here’s what Paton wrote on his blog:

Some of you have asked what are JRC’s Employee Rules For Using Social Media. To keep it simple I have reduced them to three:




Had I been in charge of the Post’s rules, I would have (sort of) split the difference. I’d have written:

1. Be human.

2. Be honorable.

3. Don’t embarrass the company.

Then, I’d have added: “We will make some mistakes, and we’ll be honest about them and correct them. But we’ll keep working on this, because we are part of a conversation that includes everyone — and, besides, we have no alternative.”

One thought on “Washington Post’s (Endless) Social Media Guidelines: Progress, but Not Enough”

  1. I went back to grad school for, in part, design thinking, to formally learn how to construct groupthink into cohesive projects.

    I read the guidelines when they published these the other day and found them the absolute worst of groupthink. A document that says nothing particularly helpful, and instead tries to list — without listing — what not to do. (Whack-a-mole!)

    When you begin to deconstruct the document, I think you see a deeply flawed process — one that values everything equally instead of one that seeks to create — that is indicative of what is wrong with the industry.

    At least that’s what I’ve culled from a cursory read and brief deconstruction. Nothing formal or empirical. You seem to cut them slack for trying, and I’d say 17 years into the Web, trying doesn’t cut it anymore.

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