Last year in August, the Times Group asked its employees to hand over their Twitter and Facebook accounts’ passwords to the company. It said that journalists could have a personal handle but they couldn’t use it to post news related stuff.
No one obviously bought that and the process never really took off. And that, one thought, was that.
But, not really, it seems.
Almost exactly a year later, the group has made it clear that it means business (like always) – and journalists must adhere to its social media policy.
An email sent on September 19 by the management to “journalist colleagues” details out instructions to create user handles that journalists are “identified” with. According to the email, this handle should be the name of the correspondent with the acronym of the brand he/she is involved with as the suffix. Here, brands refer to the Times Groups’ many publications: The Times of India (TOI), Economic Times (ET), Mirror, etc. The email asks employees to “ensure” that the name of the brand is mentioned in “CAPS”. The following lists out the following combinations as legitimate:
The email then goes on to tell that the bio – as the about section is referred to in Twitter parlance – “should clearly mention the affiliation of the journalist”. It further adds that “it could also mention some other things like his interests”. Here comes the interesting bit: the mail insists that the bio “MUST clearly say: Views expressed are personal”. Wait, what? Isn’t this an official account and not a personal account? In fact, isn’t that the basic premise of the exercise? After all, the original contract that laid out these guidelines clearly mentions that journalists would have to share the password to the official account with the company and that the company would have the right to post on the journalist’s behalf. Moreover, the mail categorically mentions that the account should be linked to the official email address.
To add to the personal/official confusion, the mail adds that if anyone wants to use his/her personal account for official purposes, he/she should “change the handle and bio to be in line with the policy mentioned above”. The mail encourages employees to do so “without a worry because it does NOT affect your follower count”.
In what appears to be a strategy to ensure that employees take the instructions seriously, and things don’t fizzle out like last time, the mail states that journalists’ “performance will be measured based on the activity on this official Twitter handle”. Besides, it has been reliably learnt by Newslaundry that employees’ target variable pay – a chunk of the salary that’s contingent on performance – will be linked to activity on the Twitter handle. Currently, journalists, we have been told, have been asked to tweet at least two stories a day.
Journalists from the Times Group we spoke to were divided on the development. “It seems pretty harmless, to be honest. It doesn’t matter much to me anyway since I try to be regular on Twitter,” said one reporter with The Times of India. Another journalist with The Economic Times said that things as they stood now didn’t seem too malicious. “After all the Internet is how most people consume their news now and we are directly competing with web-only properties so it makes sense that we use Twitter aggressively.” A journalist in a fairly senior editorial position with the group told me that the move was a result of some journalists not being active on Twitter at all. “In the digital age, you can’t be not on social media if you are in the business of communication,” he said.
Not everyone is convinced, though. “It is ridiculous, some of us have three accounts now – one personal, one that we created now, and another that we created last year when they pushed through this policy first before it was abandoned,” said a reporter with a Times Group publication. A journalist with The Times of India said that they had no choice but to follow instructions. “We have been told that our Twitter activity is being monitored, and our target variable pay, which is a significant part of our salaries, will depend on our engagement levels on Twitter,” the correspondent said.
There, however, seems to be very little clarity among journalists as to how exactly their target variable pays will be connected to their Twitter activity. “We’ve been told as much as 80 per cent of it could depend on our digital presence – and that’s a huge amount,” said a journalist on the condition of anonymity.
An email seeking comment from the Times Group remains unanswered. The story will be updated if and when we receive a response.
In July last year, just before the Times group rolled out in contracts, Joseph A Ripp, the Chief Executive Officer of Time Inc, the company that publishes the Time magazine in the United Sates, said that the magazine was doing away with the wall between editorial and marketing. “Editors are now going to be working for the business side of the equation. Frankly, they are happy about it,” he said in an interview to Bloomberg.
Quite a few journalists from the Times Group we spoke to also sounded excited about the prospect – and the related monetary benefits. It is perhaps a good time for everyone in Indian journalism to listen to John Oliver’s response to Ripp once again: The separation is the heart of journalism; it is what keeps it going. We need it.