All the News That’s Fit to Tweet

Last week, The New York Times announced the promotion of Jen Preston (most recently of the now-defunct Times Regional sections) to social media editor for the newspaper. At first glance, this seems like a great move. Newspapers desperately need to catch up to the way communication and information sharing takes place nowadays, and having someone whose job it is to, I quote from the memo announcing Preston’s hire, “concentrate full-time on expanding the use of social media networks and publishing platforms to improve New York Times journalism and deliver it to readers” sounds like a giant step in the right direction.

The hiring was not without some awkwardness, such as Preston’s Twitter account only becoming non-protected in the hours after her hire (and purged of all previous tweets, if there were any). But Mashable raised the greater point of, what ultimate purpose will a centrally placed individual “in charge of” social media at the newspaper serve, especially when some reporters are already doing a great job at a more organic level in using social media? 

Consolidating social strategy and having one person direct operations could help, but only if he or she is socially savvy and open to feedback and new connections. 

The great thing about social media is that it is not a top-down channel, like newspapers have traditionally been. It’s not even just bottom-up. It’s everything from all directions, all the time. You can’t control that — once your carefully constructed video, blog post, article or tweet leaves the nest, it’s at the mercy of the social wilderness. You can study the phenomenon and react to it, but you can’t define or dictate it. It will be curious to see what Preston’s role evolves to become. Since the announcement, she has been doing lots of replying and retweeting, a bunch of listening and also attending presentations on Twitter given by her own colleagues. All good things.

Mike Volpe at HubSpot was a bit less allowing, calling the move a “misfire” and instead encouraging the company to empower its entire staff with skills in SEO and social media.

The whole point behind inbound marketing is that it is not some sort of bolt on to your existing company.  You get the best results when you re-think your business and business model, and involve the entire company. 

This sounds good, but like I said, the world of social media is all things from all directions, not top-down. You can’t shift from one to the other overnight, and if you do want to shift, it may make sense to have one person on hand to coordinate that transition. It may very well be that the ultimate NYT strategy is to equip every reporter with the new media toolkit (and many NYT staffers are already immersing themselves in social media — less clumsily than David Pogue, I hope) but in their current organizational structure, that is not going to happen organically across the board.

A Double-Edged Sword

But organizational commitment to social media can cut two ways. Both NYT and the Wall Street Journal are among publications that have provided social media guidelines to its reporters. Some of the WSJ guidelines are medium-specific, such as not to friend sources without editor approval, but a lot of them seem like common sense guidelines on not misrepresenting yourself and maintaining a professional demeanor. The NYT guidelines for Facebook dig a little deeper, getting almost philosophical about what exactly is a “friend” and talking about source-culling, but also present a lot of common sense rules like not editorializing if you work in News and not making the company look bad. A common element is not to discuss works-in-progress online. (Personally, I am iffy about such guidelines. My stance until further notice is to use your judgment and basic common sense — something the reporters who tweeted items from a newsroom meeting did not do.)

Some folks raise the question, though: do these policies inhibit the very functions that make social media communities so compelling and useful by, well, tightly restricting how social you can be? Jeff Jarvis brings up the point of collaborative reporting, and the great opportunity for newspapers (like Talking Points Memo has done) to tap the resources of the broader community to advance their reporting.

This mindset, of course, flies in the face of scoop mentality, of anti-citizen journalist sentiment and ivory-tower journalism. The editorial hierarchy is not built to allow reporters to be independent decision-making agents who can live-tweet, blog and friend at will. But maybe, at least in some respects, it should be.

What many print publications have failed to realize is that the age of the scoop is over. It’s not about who gets there first; it’s about who stays there best, and that outcome is not entirely in the hands of the publication. Like with Volpe’s complaint about Preston’s hiring, I understand Rome isn’t built (or un-built, in this case) in a day, but social media present intriguing opportunities to drop the wall a bit, even on a per-story basis, and bring the community into the process. I’d love to see that happen. 

(BTW I highly recommend this blog post by the Nieman Journalism Lab for good thoughts and links on all of the above.)

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