Does it matter that some New York Times editors and writers don’t tweet? Yes and no

BuzzFeed recently ran a post on what it called the New York Times‘ “Twitter graveyard,” which turned out to be a list of accounts set up by the newspaper’s editorial staff that are either dormant or unused, including some that still have the default egg avatar given to Twitter newbies. But does that mean some staffers just haven’t taken to a particular platform, or does it mean the paper’s writers and editors aren’t doing enough to engage with readers?

That was the underlying question behind a discussion I had with a number of senior NYT staffers on Monday — including the paper’s deputy digital editor and co-author of the recent internal “innovation report” — after one (a senior member of the paper’s development team, Jacob Harris) referred to the BuzzFeed piece somewhat dismissively, implying that using Twitter accounts as a proxy for whether journalists are doing their jobs is neither fair nor particularly enlightening (I’ve also created a Storify collection of some of the relevant tweets).

I tried to argue that focusing solely on whether someone is on Twitter is trivial, and may even be unfair, but the larger point being made by BuzzFeed and others is that the Times may be lacking in the area of social engagement with readers. And this is important because it could literally be the key to survival for media companies and journalists alike, as social starts to replace search.

Engaging means more than just listening

A number of Times staffers, including deputy international editor Lydia Polgreen, made the point that there are plenty of reporters and editors who use Twitter regularly and are open to engaging with readers, a group that includes media writer David Carr, Polgreen herself, science writer John Schwartz, columnist Nick Kristof and others. As she pointed out, readers have far more engagement potential with NYT writers than they have ever had.

Foreign correspondent Damien Cave and others echoed a common refrain, which is that just because a New York Times reporter or editor doesn’t tweet a lot doesn’t mean that they aren’t listening to readers and following conversations about stories — a point that deputy digital editor Amy O’Leary also made. Others noted that there are lots of different ways to respond to readers and engage with them, including Facebook, email and in person.

As I tried to argue, however, listening is only part of the equation when it comes to engagement, and it’s likely the easiest part. The hard part is having to respond when someone criticizes your piece or points out an error — but that is also when engaging is at its most powerful, and it can ultimately result in better journalism.

Engaging publicly is crucial

To her credit, O’Leary — who now has the task of implementing some of the recommendations she wrote about in the innovation report — has tried to make these same points in presentations (such as the slide deck embedded below) about how the jobs of journalists have changed in the age of the web, and how listening and engaging are now a crucial part of the work that they do.

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One person who has been singled out for his lack of tweeting is Dean Baquet, the NYT’s new executive editor — perhaps in part because he is the one who will have to implement some of the recommendations in the innovation report, and he is not known for being someone who is all that friendly towards the web, nor are many of those whom he just appointed to senior editorial roles.

As my friend Jeff Jarvis argued during the discussion, one of the benefits of someone like Baquet being on Twitter is that it sends a message that he and his publication are interested in what readers have to say, beyond just a letter to the editor, and they are willing and able to respond to criticism — as opposed to leaving all that to be handled by public editor Margaret Sullivan.

Journalism is no longer one-way

Polgreen (and others I have spoken to both publicly and privately at the Times) argued that Baquet has enough on his plate trying to manage the newspaper with all the upheaval that has been going on there, not to mention some fairly huge breaking stories such as Syria and Iraq, without having to tweet as well.

One of the Times‘ social-media editors, Michael Roston, argued in an earlier response to the BuzzFeed piece that reporters are too busy doing journalism to tweet, implying that it is a waste of their time. And there’s no question that it takes time to engage with readers around your journalism. But it’s not as though this is a binary question of tweeting or not; as Cave argued, it’s just a matter of somehow finding a balance between reporting and interacting with readers.

What is increasingly clear to me is that interacting and engaging are part of a journalist’s job now, regardless of what platform they use to do it. And it’s not enough to respond to an email, which only two people (the sender and the receiver) will ever see. To achieve the full effect, it has to be done as publicly as possible — that’s where the transparency part comes in.

As I tried to describe in an earlier post, there’s a temptation within many newspapers to believe that the only problem the web has created is how to get all that excellent journalism to readers most efficiently, and to see the social web as merely a distribution mechanism or PR gesture. Engaging with readers is much more than that — it’s the key to developing a new kind of interactive, two-way journalism, and that journalism may ultimately be the only kind that survives.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Rani Molla