In Your Facebook  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2008

In Your Facebook   

Why more and more journalists are signing up for the popular social networking site

By Kelly Wilson
Kelly Wilson (kwilson@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.      


Six months ago, Lori Schwab decided to join the growing number of journalists with Facebook profiles. It wasn't a desperate attempt to fit in with the younger generation. Instead, the 47-year-old executive director of the Online News Association says creating accounts for herself and her association only made sense. "Facebook is now used by journalists for themselves as well as in their profession," she says, and it's become a central fact of online life.

She's not alone. More and more, journalists across the age lines are discovering the relevance of social networking sites to their lives and work. Facebook in particular has pulled in members of the field far beyond the original target college audience, leaving age-restrictive demographic delineations in the dust.

The presence of older journalists on Facebook fits the pattern of age-related trends in other areas, says freelance writer Pat Walters, 23. Younger people are often the first to jump into new turns in technology and then, if the ground proves firm enough, the more cautious, and typically older, set joins in.

In July Walters wrote about Facebook's applicability to journalists for the Poynter Institute based on "interviews" he conducted on Facebook ( poynter.org/column.asp?id=101&aid=127211). Thanks to the viral nature of the site, Walters was able to turn 25 invitations to his group, Journalists and Facebook, into a population of more than 1,000 by the time the story was written (more than 5,900 at last count). From there he just had to pose the question at the center of his piece what can journalists learn from Facebook? and the work did itself.

The age generalization is tricky because it can be difficult to separate the actual new users from the apparently savvy; after all, presence and participation are two very different things in the social networking world. For some more established journalists, particularly those who enjoy a certain amount of fame, a count of Facebook friends means nothing at all.

It takes only a few clicks of the mouse to accept a friend invitation. Before you know it, folks like Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham have hundreds of friends they've never met in real life (the one offline, if you can imagine).

Across the board, social sites are a way for people to interact as they never could before (or at least, never could with such ease). For journalists that means contacting others for ideas and support on tough assignments or connecting with editors for advice and job opportunities. Many organizations have gone a step further to create groups only for members of their news outlets' networks.

It takes just a few minutes to set up a Facebook account, and from there "friending" other members and joining the site's famous groups is a piece of cake. Anyone with an Internet connection can do it.

The dam broke when Facebook became open to everyone in September 2006, and the spectrum of implications for journalists in particular has been discussed repeatedly: faster contact with younger sources on the positive end versus consideration of such an accountability-free environment on the negative. Without hurdles to jump to be part of the site or many of its groups, policing discussions can be a full-time job.

Even some of the Facebook users in Walters' group have reservations about the site. Washington Post copy editor Phillip Blanchard used the group to express his concern that the increased ease of communication brings an increased potential for fraud. "Facebook is great for 'social networking' but not terribly useful as a journalistic tool," he said in a post on the group's wall. "People aren't always who they seem to be. For example, you can't even be sure who I am... Verification is very important in journalism, which apparently is being forgotten a lot, or never learned."

In an e-mail interview, he added: "Facebook is amusing and fun for millions of people, and journalists are people. I set up a profile purely for amusement. I don't see any role for Facebook in our work lives, because on Facebook, like everywhere on the Internet, you never know who wrote what you see and whether it is true."

Unlike the association's Schwab, Blanchard, 54, says journalists around his age are "probably attracted to the site because it makes us feel younger. A lot of older journalists have joined Facebook this year, probably due to the herd mentality."

Still, Walters and Bill Mitchell, the 59-year-old director of Poynter Online and editor of Walters' piece, see the bright side of the site as a modern communication tool. The Journalists and Facebook experiment opens the door, Walters says, to something bigger than the group he created, stretching beyond the demographic stereotypes of the formerly student-only site. Walters readily admits that he has not bothered with the upkeep a group like his would require to become a long-term forum for discussion, but he says it could be a step in the right direction.

"I don't think something like Facebook is going to change the way people talk about things except to bring more people into the discussion," Walters says. Such a forum could act as the next step when things like comment boxes on news sites don't go far enough in engaging the audience.

"I think that could work," he says. "I think it could be interesting. It would have to be something people care a lot about. People, especially journalists, are very busy. But there already are viable, sustainable groups happening all over the industry" in other online forms such as blogs and listservs.

Mitchell admits that his own Facebook involvement is limited and consists largely of seeing how many people in his neighborhood are members, but says he does some professional networking too. "I think that networking is going to be part of the future of journalism," he says. "I don't know exactly in what way, but I think it's pretty clear that colleagues and audience members are going to be much more involved in acts of journalism than they used to be."

Interesting things are already happening through Facebook thanks to some of the nation's media outlets, Mitchell says, and although he describes himself as a passive user, he's already hooked on the New York Times' daily news quiz on Facebook. By introducing another way for the audience to interact with the news, he says, the Times is "making readership habit-forming."

Journalists of all ages are getting onboard with Facebook because they fear being left behind. For Jonathan Landman, 55, a deputy managing editor of the

New York Times, knowing what is happening online is crucial to his job, and a huge part of that takes place on Facebook. More than using the site much for himself, he says he created a profile to stay current by seeing how site features are used.

After all, Facebook, as many of the posts from the Journalists and Facebook wall say, is where the readers are. As in any form of journalism, if you don't understand where the audience is and what it's doing, you don't understand the audience. With the rising popularity of these sites, Landman says, people are more and more interested in hearing about them, what they do and who's there. Experiencing them and reporting back, he says, is literally what the job is all about.

Kelly Wilson

Wilson (kwilson4@umd.edu) wrote about Mother Jones' new Washington bureau in AJR's December/January issue.

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