Managers at the Boston Herald got an unwelcome surprise after they suspended reporter Chris Villani – allegedly for violating the company’s social media policy. The 2013 policy, which requires reporters to get approval from the Executive Editor or his designee prior to tweeting breaking news, had never been enforced before.
Reporters launched a Twitter boycott – blacking out their profile images and refraining from tweeting.
The dispute arose on April 20, when Villani tweeted an accurate, well-sourced scoop: “The notes found in #AaronHernandez cell were letters to his daughter & fiancee, saying he loved them & would see them in heaven, per source.”
“What it comes down to for the union is an issue of trust. The editors of the Boston Herald do not trust their employees and this policy is a reflection of that,” said union representative Antonio Planas, of the NewsGuild-CWA Local 31032.
The protest was organized through the union’s Facebook page, with dozens of people providing input, Planas said. Union members decided to black out their Twitter avatars and stop tweeting for the duration of the reporter’s suspension, which ends Wednesday, May 3. All employees were in danger of suspension if they tweeted, the workers reasoned.
Forty-seven of 53 local union members on Twitter had blacked out their images as of May 2, including one union member who joined Twitter just to participate.
“We have never undertaken such a public campaign,” Planas said. “It took a lot of guts for our members to do what they did and to stand up for our colleague.”
Management took notice. “They were shocked and scrambling,” Planas said. “There were a lot of whispers and several closed-door meetings.”
The editorial unit of the NewsGuild-CWA Local 31032 issued the following statement:
Herald Media Inc. has had a social media policy in effect since January 2013.
For the first time in four years, it was used to discipline a member of the Boston Herald, who was suspended without pay for violating the letter of this policy with an accurate, timely and competitive news-related tweet.
The company is now enforcing a policy that says all news-related tweets and posts must be cleared by an editor. This is not workable for media in a technologically sophisticated and competitive market, when reporters are at a press conference, covering courts, sports or a breaking-news event such as a fire.
By enforcing this policy, editorial employees are rightfully in fear of tweeting or otherwise posting to social media. The Herald has put itself at odds with innovative news organizations across the country that embrace social media and use it to boost their digital and print products, as well as the profiles of talented people on their staffs.
— Members of TNG-CWA Local 31032, Editorial Unit