Dispatches from the living amongst journalism's walking dead

The Social Media Editor is Dead, Long Live the Social Media Editor!

Is the role of the newsroom social media editor dead? A lot of journalists seem to think so, according to this piece by Rob Fishman at Buzzfeed.

Fishman* talked with a lot of industry leaders who noted that “social was no longer peripheral, but core to their strategy. Concentrating authority in a single personage no longer made sense.”

They’re right, to some extent, but most of the people interviewed in Fishman’s piece are from larger news organizations with long-established roles in social media. Coming from a perspective of smaller local newsrooms, I beg to differ. Many news organizations out there still need someone on staff to be thinking about how to use social media effectively and strategically across the entire news organization.

It isn’t the social media editor that is dead, but rather the Newsroom Social Media Rockstar Ninja Guru (and thank goodness).

As Fishman notes, many of the early social media editors were able to build quite a name for themselves:

More followers, more about them, more about their “personal brand.” Instead of finding a niche within the newsroom, these hires carved one out for themselves, largely outside of existing structures. They became self-appointed spokespeople, faces and names.

The exoticism of social media created a whole class of (mostly young) journalists who suddenly were a big deal – but who were ultimately supposed to be working themselves out of a job. Many instead worked themselves into bigger and better ones (and good on them). ** These days, there are a lot of tasks heaped on the social lead that aren’t so glamorous.

Even outside the news industry, the pedestal on which social media ninjas have been placed is slowly sinking. According to this excellent piece by Amber Naslund, the spotlight for social specialists is dimming as they move into the larger machinery of the digital space – and the enthusiasm of the would-be Brand Builders is fading along with it.

There’s definitely still a lot of work that needs to be done in many newsrooms when it comes to social media. The evangelization to join social media is no longer a job to be done in most newsrooms. Using social media well isn’t enough anymore either. It’s become a more widely-held skill to be able to write a good tweet, get response from an engaging Facebook post or set up a new Tumblr to capture a fly-by meme – but it is much more difficult to determine where it fits in the overall picture and long-term goals of the organization.

As my friend Daniel Victor noted, social media editors are not created equal. That title has a lot of different meanings and job duties across the industry – it can range anywhere from the Twitter monkey manning the newsroom accounts 24/7 to a strategist working social in at the highest levels to the Thought Leader/Guru (or some combination therein).

So what do newsrooms really need from the modern social media leader? I say it involves the following:

  • Elevate the use of social media across the organization. Help staffers craft and evolve their own social media plans around their jobs – don’t just get them on a tool and throw them out on their own. Monitor their use over time, make suggestions and encourage them to grow in their comfort and skills.
  • Manage your news brand’s social presence – not necessarily with hands on the Tweetdeck all of the time, but driving the overall message.
  • Be the evangelist for community engagement in all newsroom endeavors. Make suggestions for how social media, curation, crowdsourcing and UGC fits with particular coverage plans, experiment (or help others experiment) with new tools and offer feedback based on metrics.
  • Be the voice of encouragement for using social media, but also the voice of when not to use it.
  • Act as the customer service agent – both inside and outside the newsroom. You aren’t the ombudsman, but you can certainly help connect someone with the solution to a problem. Be the sounding board and staff researcher for social media issues, be they ethical quandaries, UGC concerns or larger trends in the crossroads of social media and news.
  • Craft and/or carry out a social media strategy for the entire news organization – preferably as part of a larger team across the newsroom, sales, marketing, corporate structure and management. Work toward an overall vision for what the various aspects of the organization are trying to do with social media and how they all fit together.

What would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments.

The truth is, most social media editors working in news today aren’t being paid to be thought leaders or personal brands — they’re being paid to make their newsrooms better. The rest is just gravy (mmm, gravy).



* Full disclosure, Fishman hired me on at Huffington Post two years ago, though we never had the chance to work together.

** I’m not saying the whole Social Rockstar thing isn’t great. In fact, it’s fantastic and intoxicating. Early on, when I first started in a social role in 2008 at the Cincinnati Enquirer, the social media role gave me a position of visibility in my newsroom and community I didn’t have as a web producer. Then, when I moved from Cincinnati to DC for TBD, it gave me that visibility on a much larger scale – it gave me a brand. I was suddenly invited to conferences and asked to speak to classes. People introduced themselves to me at conferences because they recognized my name from Twitter. My name was referenced alongside people who I considered to be famous journalists. That was pretty cool. It was also fleeting.


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  2. Jennifer Preston

    Mandy, awesome, thoughtful post. And yes, @digidave:disqus, I think blogging is coming back and ugc from social media platforms is fueling a new better more visual form of blogging. (Not new to you. 🙂 Or Mandy. Or Buzzfeed. With the opportunity to find great ugc on social media platforms, embed Twitter cards, YouTube videos and include embedded news video from local television stations, as we have been doing on The Lede, we have a chance to produce really strong, multimedia storytelling on blogs, on the websites of news organizations. We can create visual streams (I experimented w/this on the gun debate). As you know, the trick is getting it to show up in mobile. We were able to do it w/the live blog during Boston Marathon so that all of the rich media showed up in mobile. Would love to talk to more people about using ugc for storytelling, for both breaking news and enterprise. Maybe a panel for ONA. Getting people together to talk about using ugc from social media for reporting — and embedding – to create more visual stories online, on blogs? By the way, @digidave, I just downloaded Circa. Love it. And congrats on getting Anthony on your team. He is a good guy.

    • Thanks, Jennifer.

      Storytelling with crowdsourcing and UGC via curation/liveblogs are a huge part of what we’re doing at DFM Thunderdome as well. I’ve really liked the format experiments and ideas you guys have been coming out with at the Times. I think everyone is at the point where they know what UGC is, but not necessarily how to leverage it into a coherent story or how to ask for it in a way that will really capture readers. I think it’s a rich topic for ONA and elsewhere. I’d be curious to hear what newsrooms of all sizes are experimenting with in this area.

      • Jennifer Preston

        Mandy, Maybe, we could start by proposing an ONA panel in NYC? I have mentioned it to Alicia? Here’s my email: jepresto@nytimes.com.

        P.S. Love your blog.

  3. ChrisGordon1977

    Great stuff, Mandy. And you’re completely right about many news orgs still needing help, support and training. Mind you, I’ve also seen some illustrious titles use social media badly.

    And to your point under Jennifer’s comment, I thought I’d share something that we did, a project created for the BC elections last month. http://www.vancourier.com/news/election/electionlive.html?pid=p14 [the Google map displayed geo-located tweets and instagrams but the use of the #bcelxn hashtag has dropped off drastically so no tweets are likely showing!]

    It ran on 10 of our sites, which were of varying sizes (some with daily publications, some twice-weekly), and took about four months to complete. It was the first time the dev team and newsrooms had built or used anything like it and this is where a central resource, or social media editor, can help a news group. The reality is the industry is not flush with resources and it’s likely that a page like this would not have been built without it being championed and conceived centrally. This is not because of a lack of smarts or skills, but time and resources and the reality that print is what’s still bringing in the revenues.

    The best part of all of this was the feedback, internally and externally, which was so positive. Newsrooms enjoyed using it (as both a storytelling tool and news gathering one) and throughout the day I passed on the feedback the work we had all done was getting on Twitter.

    Great blog – it’s been added to my (soon-to-be defunct) Google Reader… I really need to get a new one sorted!


    • Thanks for coming by, Chris! That map is a really neat addition to your election coverage! You’re absolutely right: Projects like that likely wouldn’t be pursued if there were not someone championing crowdsourcing efforts on staff.

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