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Dec. 9, 2010, 3 p.m.

Aron Pilhofer and Jennifer Preston on the new shape of social in The New York Times’ newsroom

In some ways, the most successful social media editor is an obsolete social media editor. The better you do your job — integrate social media into your newsroom, make it a seamless part of your organization’s workflow — the less you’re required to actually, you know, do your job.

By that measure, Jennifer Preston‘s work as The New York Times’ first social media editor has been a resounding success — as evidenced by the fact that she will also likely be the outlet’s last social media editor. Earlier this week, the paper announced that it’s scrapping its SM editor role, instead folding responsibility for the Times’ social media oversight into an expanded Interactive News division*, under the leadership of Interactive News Editor Aron Pilhofer.

Pilhofer’s team is composed of developers who are at the vanguard of the journo-hacker movement (we wrote a bit about their intriguing backgrounds this summer), and they’ve already had a big hand in developing some of the Times’ most notable forays into social media: creative commenting systems like Health Care Conversations (which the Interactive team worked on with the paper’s Multimedia team, and which uses what the team internally calls a “bento box” structure to visualize commentary); crowdsourcing efforts like Survival Strategies, which asked for readers’ approaches to coping with the recessed economy; and other efforts. The move into social, in fact, isn’t a move at all. As Pilhofer notes, “It’s really more of an expansion of something that we’re already deeply involved in.”

That expansion has been met with general approval from the Twittersphere and elsewhere: The idea of diffusing the responsibility for social media, shifting it from one person to a team and a newsroom, makes eminent sense. And Preston, for her part — who will continue in the Times’ long tradition of editors-returning-to-reporting, helping to cover, fittingly, the social media beat — likes what the shift to Interactive means for the Times’ future. “That’s where social media belongs, and that’s the direction we have been taking it,” she told me. “And I am thrilled — I am just so delighted — that social media is now going to sit in Aron Pilhofer’s group.”

Evolving toward obsolescence

The shift marks something of a victory for social media at the paper of record — and the news organization where some of the most exciting interplays between tradition and technology are being developed. Social media, at the Times as everywhere else, has undergone an evolution — something that’s been in the works long before Preston took the social media editor role. “The New York Times had a very robust presence in the social media space before I took on that role,” she notes; for the past year and a half, Preston has been not only overseeing the paper’s efforts when it comes to social media, but also playing a get-the-word out role within the Times’ newsroom itself.

One of her great successes in that respect has actually been a quiet one: She has, in a way, normalized the newsroom’s relationship with social media, taking it from a somewhat controversial presence — that newfangled tool of the Twitters — into something now generally accepted as part of the new way of doing journalism. “When I took on the role of social media editor last summer, my primary responsibility was to be an evangelist among our journalists,” Preston told me.

Increasingly, though, that role is becoming obsolete: “Our journalists get it,” she says. “Which has just been so exciting.”

Now, under Pilhofer, social media’s presence will be even more widely distributed throughout the newsroom — and, thus, even more finely integrated within it. “A lot of people, I think, think of engagement as just comments,” Preston notes. “And we have to do such a better job in that area, which everyone is aware of, and we’re really focused on making improvements there. But there are so many other ways that you can engage people and use social to help drive that.”

In taking over Preston’s general social media responsibilities, Pilhofer told me, he’ll still be playing a training role, introducing Times journalists to new tools for social engagement — Twitter, Facebook, whatever’s next. “We are now at a point when we can start pushing these ideas, and these tools, and responsibilities, and getting this out into the newsroom to continue what Jennifer was doing so effectively for so long.” Pilhofer agrees with Preston, though: It won’t be about evangelism. In fact, “I’m always looking for other words besides ‘evangelizing,'” he notes. “I don’t like it because [social media] is not faith-based. There are very clear, very demonstrable, empirical data we can point to, if that’s what it comes to, to convince somebody that this is worth taking very, very seriously and building into your reporting process. We can show you that. You don’t have to take our word for it.”

And the job of trainer/advocate, going forward, will be distributed. “I think, to some degree, we’re going to be relying on folks who have — to continue the metaphor — ‘gotten the religion’ to continue that,” Pilhofer says. “And one of those people, obviously, is going to be Jen.”

“A seamless mix”

Another aspect of social media’s diffusion into the newsroom will be a broad definition of what “social media” means in the first place. “When this first came up, I was very clear that I wanted to think about all things social — not just a handful of websites that we now talk about,” Pilhofer says. Social media, he points out, “is the entire conversation: It is anywhere readers are talking about us, talking with us, talking with one another, talking about issues that are important — things we’re covering — whether that occurs on NYTimes.com or off. To me, that’s a continuum of things. It’s not just one thing.”

Included in that is an idea that’s especially exciting for future-of-newsies: social-media-as-reporting-tool. “Social media,” as Pilhofer construes the term, includes “a lot of really, really cool new tools that are coming online to help more effectively filter the flow of information — and home in on those interesting tidbits that could turn into great stories.” (Preston echoes that: “I think it’s a mistake to think of Facebook as a platform just to push out — as a distribution tool. I think it’s just a real opportunity for news organizations to use it to seed communities around your content,” she notes.) And — Pilhofer again — “helping reporters do that, I think, will be very much a part of our responsibility.”

Pilhofer’s team is used to working with text reporters, web producers, business side-ers, and other members of the Times’ organization to accomplish its goals. Interactivity, increasingly, touches every corner of the building. And the entire group of journo-hackers will be involved in making the interpersonal connections within the newsroom that, hopefully, will translate to interpersonal connections in the world beyond its walls. “In effect,” Pilhofer notes, “the responsibilities are coming under the team, and into the team.” The community-building strategies and the technological strategies, currently somewhat separate, are going to be folded into Interactive News. The vision? “A seamless mix of technologists working with journalists to accomplish those kinds of goals. That’ll happen inside the group, but it’ll happen outside the group, as well.”

*That division will now be composed of ten developers, plus an additional group of staff joining Interactive News as responsibilities are redistributed.

POSTED     Dec. 9, 2010, 3 p.m.
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