When CYA can BYA

It’s lawyer day at Buzzmachine….

In this week’s kerfuffling on Twitter and blogs about the Wall Street Journal’s anti-interactive interactivity rules regarding Twitter et al, a New York Times editor took a few of us to task for not recognizing that this was just a case of a CYA – cover your ass – memo from lawyers. I responded that CYA can now BYA – burn your ass – when such memos become public, as they will, and speak for you.

This memo was all about how Journal journalists may – or actually may not – communicate, interact, and collaborate with the public (read: us). So it was a memo about us. The Journal didn’t understand how inherently insulting it was to say that it’s dangerous for journalists to talk with us.

The memo ended up exposing a cultural problem at the Journal. I got a private direct message from an executive there saying, “Be careful where you go on this, Jeff. You’re assuming more than Robert said.” I’ll write off the vaguely threatening tone to the economy of language on Twitter. I’ll also choose to reply here rather than in a direct message because I prefer to have this conversation in public. And I’ll tell that executive that, no, the memo said more than they think it said. It said it’s better not to use these tools to collaborate with the public. It said it’s better to let the product speak for itself than to open up their process. It said that being closed is better than being open. Oh, it said plenty.

[Correction: The direct message turns out to be about a prior critical post I’d made regarding the Journal and micropayments. My mistake.]

Rather than scolding me and other tweeters and bloggers for scolding them, the Journal’s executives should have listened. They got great advice from no less than VC Fred Wilson (Twitter investor, btw) telling them what they’re missing about the value of these new tools for journalism. Rather than trying to protect the way things have always been done in this new world, wouldn’t it be better to look at the new ways these tools enable journalists to do their jobs better, to involve and collaborate with the public in the process of journalism to produce better reporting, to reset the relationship of journalist and reader on a more equal and human level, to promote the good work of the journalists at the paper, and so on?

But this is where the Times editor is probably right: I smell lawyers. Someone likely went to them and said, “Protect us. There’s something new and strange in operation here. How could it harm us? Stop it.” That’s what lawyers do, right? They protect.

But protection, haven’t we learned, is precisely the wrong response to change today. Newspapers protected their past and they’re dead. They should have bravely experimented. What they needed instead of protection was the license to try and fail. Now I have known good lawyers who will try to enable you to do what you want to do. But at the end of the day, if they do that too much, they’re screwed because it’s not their job, really, to empower you. It’s their job, still, to protect you. But in the counterintuitive internet age, protection is no protection.

I also got an email from a Journal staffer about what appears to be a Twitchhunt in the Journal. I won’t reveal details because I don’t want to reveal the identity of the employee – because, clearly, interacting with me about the inner workings and process of the Journal is now against Journal rules. That’s just what the lawyers want to protect them from, right? Wrong. What should happen instead is that the execs at the Journal should be asking staffers such as this one how to take advantage of these new tools. They should have asked the public what it means to use Twitter wisely – what is the new definition of the words a Journal editor threw at me in Twitter: “common sense.” They should instill a culture of asking the public what they know before the story is done.

Is this the lawyers’ fault? No, it’s the fault of the culture at the Journal, a culture that clearly doesn’t understand the benefits of using these tools to open up and do journalism in new ways. But lawyers aid and abet that kind of thinking. They enforce it. They codify it. They make it seem OK. And then they become the voice of the company with the public. And that’s not protection. That’s dangerous. It’ll burn your ass.

  • LJ

    I’m not a journalist; a lawyer, yes. Nice work! You’ve nailed it. Here’s how I view it: if a journalist has written a strong piece, has followed basic ethical rules in production of the piece; and its integrity cannot be questioned, that is the strongest protection for the journalist. Too often the protection to “try and fail” is not rewarded, but it’s an important distinction.

  • erik martin

    FYI, the kerfuffling link doesn’t link.

    • Fixed. thanks. Suddenly the link command in WordPress has a delay that’s tripping me.

  • It’s the lawyers charge to delay, confuse, muddle and extend involvement into a process(Fees). Progress and evolvement is a threat which must be conveyed to clients(newspapers), even at the risk of clients becoming outdated and irrevelent. It’s obvious why openess is a threat to the old guard.

  • Excellent perspective. I can only hope that the rigidity and culture of never reversing a decision to keep anyone from looking bad is ultimately relaxed and they realize that social media guidelines will be fluid in the beginning. They need to figure out how to engage readers without compromising their journalistic integrity which in my opinion is the main thing to protect. The opportunities for journalists are endless in social media. It just takes some thought and an alignment with your goals that does not create sucho horible restrictions. Hope they see that before it’s too late. There is still an opportunity here to make this right. That’s the beauty of it all.
    Angela Connor | @communitygirl

  • thanks for the link Jeff

    i am so upset about this turn of events

    i grew up with the WSJ and the NYT

    they are like my corner deli

    and they are just totally blowing it


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  • Perhaps the Wall Street journal would like to offer their perspective in this forum…