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From AJR,   March 2010  issue

Harnessing Social Media   

News outlets are assigning staffers to focus on networking.


By Stephanie Gleason
Stephanie Gleason is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Trending in journalism right now: #social media editors.

With more than 400 million active users, Facebook celebrated its sixth birthday in February. And while sites like NYTimes.com and CNN.com experienced a decline in the number of unique visitors last year, Twitter's total increased by almost 300 percent. The future of journalism is uncertain, but clearly social networking is booming.

Social media's prominence has led many news organizations to hire social media editors, full-time staff members--sometimes several full-time staff members--completely dedicated to the rapidly growing phenomenon.

In January, the Associated Press named 27-year-old Lauren McCullough to fill this role, joining the New York Times, the BBC and many others in creating such a position. There are 51 "main social-media editors at media outlets," according to a list compiled by Sree Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a self-described technology evangelist/skeptic. The list includes news organizations ranging from CNN to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to the Tampa Tribune.

McCullough, whose title is manager of social networks and news engagement, works with two other social media editors. McCullough is no stranger to social media: She says she was connected with "citizen journalism, as we used to call it" and social networks during her three years at the AP, first as an online coordinator and then as the social networks and special projects producer.

Although she characterizes her role as both emerging and evolving, McCullough says that the team's fundamental task is monitoring what goes on in the digital world. This means, she says, "having a core set of people that are keeping an eye on various social networks and have an understanding of what's being talked about, what's trending, what's hot and then, certainly, as rumors of news start to percolate on social networks, we're making sure that AP is aware of it."

The team looks for articles, tips and eyewitness reports to complement the work being done by AP reporters when news breaks, maintains AP accounts on Facebook and Twitter and trains reporters in how to use social networks in their journalism.

"From a journalistic perspective, we're looking to engage with audiences and to create a conversation around the news," she says. "We're looking to bring news consumers into the process, and not just the AP process but to showcase excellent content from our members and customers."

Steve Myers, the managing editor of Poynter Online, says social media editors do much more than promote their news organizations' work. News outlets, he says, are "trying to have a single person with a personality interact with their audience and sort of solicit feedback and comments from them as well as promote their work. It's definitely a two-way street."

Sreenivasan says the social media editor "is a new breed of person in the newsroom who is able to bring immense value by harnessing all the content that the newsroom provides and help bring it eyeballs and traffic." This "is crucial as a business decision, but it also makes for really good ways to help you listen for better stories, trends and ideas."

And for some news organizations, this effort is yielding results. Robert Quigley, social media editor at the Austin American-Statesman, says that social media are helping newspapers reach an audience, especially when major news erupts, that is traditionally hard for them to penetrate. "During Hurricane Ike in the fall of 2008, we set up a special account just for the hurricane called @trackingike. That weekend we drove over 300,000 visitors to our site from Twitter alone."

During the shootings at Fort Hood last November, the paper's dedicated Twitter account pushed tens of thousands of visitors to the Statesman's site who likely wouldn't have come otherwise, he says.

Apart from driving site traffic, Quigley sees value in the personal connection social media provide. "People who would not have paid attention to the newspaper otherwise feel like they're a part of the newspaper," he says. "They feel like they know a lot of our staff writers and reporters personally, because it's such a personal medium. And that's valuable."

In order for news organizations to take advantage of that value, someone has to be engaging the audience on Facebook, teaching reporters best practices for Twitter and staying on top of emerging social networks and technologies.

At its best, Sreenivasan sees the role as both a "listener in chief" who is aware of what is being talked about and trending online, and as a "cheerleader in chief for social media. It's a teaching function as well."

Quigley, who previously was the Statesman's Internet editor, says he spends a lot of time working with staffers on social networking, running newsroom seminars and issuing weekly newsletters. McCullough says that training is an ongoing project to make sure AP staff all over the world incorporate social networking into their journalism.

Pete Sweigard, who directs social media efforts at the Baltimore Sun along with community coordinators, says "it helps to have dedicated people to help with training and awareness of new things," because otherwise it can be hard for reporters to pull away from the demands of putting out a newspaper and engage in social media.

Social media editors understand a culture that many who are new to social networking may not. Quigley points out that newspapers are not exactly in the vanguard as far as social networking is concerned. "We are very conscious that we are kind of intruders into social media, and for the news to be there, we need to be doing it right," he says. "We need to be respectful of the medium and not just put links everywhere."

Sreenivasan says, "What the editor does that the lay people don't do is that they're listening for what's working and what's not in social media."

Having a staffer directing a social media effort is important because the way the audience comes to news stories online is changing, says Monty Cook, editor of the Baltimore Sun. Rather than heading straight for a homepage, readers "pick and choose stories to come into Web sites through outside linking... I do think you're seeing the culture start to pivot in some way."

While the new position may be crucial, a news outlet's social media presence cannot rest completely on the social media editor. "I think it would be silly of a news organization to make it all about one person," Sreenivasan says. "Everybody should be doing this. Everybody should be participating and engaged. This is new work that needs to be done."

While the Sun has a dedicated team, it works with others in the newsroom on creating a voice online, and thinking about what audiences look for and what benefit social media have for a journalist. Last December, the Sun was named the newspaper with the best Twitter IQ in a report by the Bivings Group, an Internet communications firm. The Austin American-Statesman came in second.

Sreenivasan says social media in 2010 are at a stage similar to radio in 1912 and television in 1950. "That means there are a lot of opportunities for your news organization," he says. "If your news organization is fixed on what it can and cannot do today, that's a mistake. It would be as if you cemented all the roles in 1912. You wouldn't have done that. You might make a mistake if you'd done that."