Exit Interview: Matthew Keys : Columbia Journalism Review

It’s been a rough month and a half for Matthew Keys. In March, Reuters’s now-former deputy social media editor was indicted by the US Justice Department, accused of sharing a past employer’s network information with hackers. Reuters suspended him (with pay) shortly thereafter, and Keys, 26, spent the last month tweeting news much like he did before the suspension, with his Reuters title still on his Twitter profile.

The Boston Marathon bombing proved to be Keys’s final undoing; he lashed out at Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa, accusing his boss of tweet plagiarism. Keys also took a lot of heat for erroneously tweeting that one of the bombing suspects was in custody and live-tweeting the Boston police scanner after the police department had asked the media to stop. Yesterday, Keys announced (on Twitter, of course) that his 14-month employment with Reuters had come to an end. He replied to my questions via email.

Were you surprised when you got the phone call on Monday morning? Were you surprised when you were suspended last month?

The suspension came as a surprise. The phone call this morning was unfortunate, but not unexpected.

What’s the last month been like for you?

Very tiring. After the indictment came down, my roommates kicked me out of the apartment. With nowhere else to go, I packed the trunk of my car with the stuff I wanted to take, had it shipped, booked a plane ticket, and moved back to California. I’ll be here for a little while.

What went wrong with your Boston coverage, if anything?

Nothing. Like the networks and wires, I had anonymous sources within law enforcement. Unlike the networks and the wires, my sources were solid. Not once did I have to retract anything my sources told me. Reuters is faulting me for not adhering to a request published by other news organizations. As far as I’m aware, there was no request by law enforcement on social media and no request by law enforcement by way of a press release or media statement asking for people on Twitter to not tweet emergency scanner traffic.

Reuters fired you because of your tweets about Boston, but you also gained about 10,000 followers during that time. What do you think that means?

I gained 10,000 followers in 24 hours covering the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspect, but to be fair, my follower count dropped by about 1,000 followers after Friday. People tune in to various Twitter feeds during breaking news situations. My follower count always goes up when big news breaks, though it’s rare it goes up that much. I assume the same happens for other news aggregators and social media journalists who cover similar stories. If you’re lucky, the new followers will stick around, but it’s not unreasonable to assume some tune in for the big news event and then tune out when it’s over.

You’ve been about as open about this whole thing as anyone I’ve ever seen, from the indictment until now. On one hand, the transparency is refreshing. On the other, every time you tweet or post or what have you, you run the risk of getting in more trouble. Do the rewards outweigh the risks? And do you think, if you had just stopped tweeting entirely when the suspension began, that you’d still be employed by Reuters?

A manager with Reuters told me on Friday the company would have been perfectly happy if I had stopped tweeting when the suspension was handed down. That would have been the more conservative approach, but I don’t think it would have made a difference. The company was looking for a reason to dispose of me.

When the indictment came down, the first thing I said publicly is that I was okay and that things would go back to normal the next day. Still, there were people who worried about me. I hope by tweeting the news and writing posts—-committing acts of journalism even through tough times—-it alleviates some of the worry others have.

You’re young, with only a few news producer jobs under your belt, and suddenly you became one of the social media faces of a huge, international media brand. Did Reuters expect too much from you, and was it too quick to issue that “final warning” (which you said was also the first warning) when it felt that you came up short?

While it doesn’t say it in the written warning, Reuters issued the final warning while admitting that I hadn’t received the proper training on how Reuters operates as a news organization, what is expected of their journalists, and so on. A good example is the Trust Principles, which Reuters claims I violated. I had no idea what the Trust Principles were until I was sent to training in early November—two weeks after the “final warning.” I don’t understand how the company can expect its journalists to abide by a set of principles without telling its journalists what those principles are. That’s like trying to play a board game without having first read the rules.

When Reuters hired me, I think they expected a lot. And I delivered. With a staff of just two people dedicated to social media, we surpassed our competitor in Twitter followers. We grew our Facebook following by leaps and bounds. We broke one million follows on Google Plus (on that one, we had some help from our colleagues in London). We grew our Tumblr following tenfold in a year. We created a robust Olympics page, and ran several amazing liveblogs during large events. We experimented and took risks and occasionally broke things. Sometimes, we broke rules we didn’t even know were in place. Sometimes, we changed the rules.

Anthony De Rosa hired you—“took a chance on this goober” as you wrote on your blog—but things have seemed a bit tense between you two since your suspension, especially last week. Why are you seemingly trying to burn your bridge with the guy who hired you in the first place?

I like Anthony as a person and I respect him as a journalist. When I worked at Reuters, I looked the other way when it came to copying and pasting tweets. I figured, we’re all on the same team, we’re all working for the same product, so it didn’t matter to me then. After March, it started to matter. Reuters made it clear by way of the suspension that they didn’t want me contributing to their products. Yet you have someone who works in their editorial department copying and pasting what I post on Twitter, and moving it as if they’ve written it. I felt it was unfair the company didn’t want me in the office but they were still willing to use my work without some kind of credit.

Anthony is one of the best bosses I’ve had. I felt really bad for calling him out. But I feel defending the work I put out was the right thing to do, however innocuous it may seem to lift copy from a tweet. If it had been anyone else at Reuters, I would have done the same thing, though I’m not sure it would have been written about in CJR

You’re dealing with what has to be some scary stuff right now. The federal court case, unemployment, and now-well-publicized past questionable activity (the stuff BuzzFeed dragged up, for example). How do you think this will all end? What have you learned from this, and what are you looking forward to?

There’s nothing “questionable” about what BuzzFeed “dragged up.” The reporter who wrote the piece has been in the spotlight before for writing a questionable story. Their “source” is the equivalent of a rambling homeless man on the subway. I think the reporter who wrote the piece is really talented, and I think BuzzFeed gets some great scoops, but the piece they wrote about me was a ploy to get pageviews. Let’s not treat it as anything more than it is.

As for where this all winds up, who knows. I still have a pretty loyal following. My work stands for itself. After we win our court case and our arbitration with Reuters, I might take another swing at journalism. Or maybe after the crazy has died down I’ll decide journalism isn’t for me. If that’s the case, there’s a small island, inhabited in the South Pacific, that I will try to swim to.


Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison.