Friday, December 10, 2010

Washington Post Fronts Facebook for 18th Time

The first sign of trouble came at 10:33pm last night. The Washington Post sent out the following to its "Breaking News Alert" ("Be the first to know when major news breaks") email list:

Now in fairness, they've started to use that email list of late to promote their exclusive investigations, their big enterprise stories, even when it's not a breaking development. But I'm not sure that makes it any better.

Sure enough, the story is on the front page today. It is the 18th Facebook-focused story the Post has fronted. The first was in September 2006. The most recent was 4.5 months ago -- July 23rd. The list:

Sept 2006, Oct 2006, Feb 2007, Nov 2007, March 2008, April 2008, May 2008, June 2008, July 2008, Sept 2008, March 2009, April 2009, Aug 2009, Aug 2009, Oct 2009, May 2010, July 2010, Dec 2010.

See what you think about today's piece. It tells the story of eight months of the life of Shana Greatman Swers, who was pregnant, had a baby, and then fell into worse and worse health from a complication. It's all told through her Facebook postings, and the repsonses. Kind of odd, though sure enough it is at times a gripping story. After the jump it takes up a huge one and almost a third page spread.

Writer Ian Shapira explains in a "Story Lab" piece online that he found the story because his wife worked at the same office as Swers and saw her messages.

I have mixed feelings about this one. It's a tragedy chronicled in someone's own words and there's something there. But in the end I feel the same way about it as I do about most of the Post's Facebook stories: it doesn't belong on the front page. And in this case, it doesn't deserve so many column inches, at least not in the front section. The Post is trying too hard to be hip and with it. Today's piece would be more valuable if this were indeed some new trend about people telling very personal things about their life to their friends through Facebook. But that story was "new" a few years ago.

The Post also has a conflict of interest problem with Facebook. I don't think that's what causes the front-pagers, but it needs to be disclosed more regularly. Facebook announced, in December 2008, that Washington Post CEO Donald Graham would be joining its board the following month. Eight of the Post's 18 front-page articles on Facebook have come since January 2009. Of those, only one disclosed the connection. Today's does not.

Post writers Rob Pegoraro and Cecilia Kang have generally been very good about disclosure; the rest have not been. Referring to the Post's own internal policies, Ombudsman Andy Alexander wrote in August that "stories about Facebook must mention that its board includes Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham."


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