So can I level with you guys? I’m relieved that I’m not going to be doing this same social media jam forever.
Not because I don’t like it – actually, I still really love it. I live to send out a tweet and see a flood of reaction come in as mentions and retweets. It warms my heart to see a Facebook entry with 100+ likes and a flood of often argumentative comments. And I’m not going to lie, I was bursting with pride at my part in making Huffington Post Politics the most-trafficked politics site on the web last fall. It feels good to help drive 1.6 million social referrals in a month (December 2011).
No, I’m relieved because I’ve been worrying about my future and the future of the social media role at news organizations, for lots of reasons.
The Twitter Machine is a Cruel Mistress
At some news organizations, the social media editor role is one based largely in strategy, product development, evangelization and training. In other cases, the “social media editor” is manually running a newsroom’s branded social media accounts alone or as part of a small team, in a role I fondly refer to as “The Twitter Monkey”.
In theory, many social media jobs are intended to include both types of roles – but that doesn’t always work in practice (and I’m living proof). When you’re the/a voice behind a brand account that’s serious about breaking news – that is your life, end of story.
Watching and curating streams, responding to mentions, keeping an eye out for breaking news, promoting reporters’ work – it takes up so much time and mental energy that it’s difficult to do much else very effectively (and that includes being a spouse, friend, parent, pet owner, etc.).
The truth is, I’ve rarely had time in the past four years to actually step back and look at the big picture of what I’ve been doing. You have to be able to study, research and read to be able to create and evolve social strategy. You need to have time to experiment with new tools and practices and to work on new products to engage readers. You have to be available to help others with their own social media dilemmas. All of that is very difficult to do when you’re shoveling coal to power the Twitter Machine 24/7.
While that was fun, I wasn’t honing the sort of skills I feel would ultimately keep me employable in digital media, which brings me to Crippling Fear #2.
Joining the Twitter Monkey Seniors Tour
When I started running social media for The Cincinnati Enquirer in early 2008, there weren’t many social media editors out there. Most of us were former reporters, producers or editors who’d caught the Twitter bug and wanted to share it. We were part of the newsroom power structure from our former jobs, which helped move our practices into the rest of the operation.
These days, I’ve noted the social media specialist roles are increasingly filled by young, entry-level employees – and it isn’t surprising, social media has given many young journalists (myself included) a ticket straight into some of the largest media organizations.
Maybe this role has gotten younger because newsroom managers assume people in their 20s are naturally good at social media. Or maybe it’s because the role isn’t considered as much of a skill position as it was just a few years ago. Or maybe it’s because newsrooms don’t want to pay a social media specialist a salary befitting a few more years experience.
Whatever the reason, I feared (perhaps needlessly) that I’d soon be in a place where I wouldn’t be hirable as a social media editor anymore. I’d have to move on – and I was doubly worried I’d have nowhere to go.
It used to be you could start as a copyeditor, reporter or web producer and eventually (with good work) move up to be a mid-level editor, then an editor, then a director and so on. There was a system. The social media specialist, as a fairly new role, often isn’t in that system (from my anecdotal evidence-gathering). Their skills, while useful for their purposes, may not be likely to translate into larger digital roles in the minds of top level managers.
I can’t tell you how many times in my career I’ve expresses interest in jobs outside of social media – in content editing, digital management, news editor-type jobs, and been rebuffed with “but your experience seems to be in social media”. Lucky for me, I had a career before social media – and I’ve managed to do enough outside of my Twitter monkeying to keep those skills sharp.
Long story short, I was afraid I would be forever branded a “Social Media Person” – and then wouldn’t even be able to be hired for those existing social media positions, anyway.
Social Media =The Mafia
Maybe my fears are silly, I do come from a long line of worriers. I just can’t help but wonder what will become of my generation of social editors. Will those who want to move on be given the chance, as I have? Will the Twitter Monkeys be able to throw off their chains and join the editor meetings a bit more often?
I said in 2008 – and I still believe – that if we as the designated social media types were doing our jobs well, we wouldn’t be necessary because everyone in the newsroom would be proficient at social media. That’s the best possible future I can imagine for the role of social media in our industry.
As for me, I know I may be leaving the ranks of the Twitter Monkeys, but I’m not out of social media by any means. I’ll still be wearing a hardhat, I just won’t be driving the forklift anymore. Perhaps I can do all of that fun strategizing, teaching and big picture thinking I’ve heard so much about. I’ll get to spend more time on my own accounts, for once, and I’ll be helping others achieve their own goals. Man, I can’t wait.
Eds note: This is sort of stream of consciousness. Forgive my errors and future edits, I was on a roll.