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May 3, 2010, 12:30 p.m.

“Maximum information in minimum time”: Gauging social media’s merits

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently attended the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. One theme that became clear on panel after panel: in Italy, one of the lowest-ranked countries for press freedom in Europe, innovation is hampered not only by legacy journalistic infrastructure, but also by cultural and governmental traditions.

In that environment, social media simply aren’t top-of-mind for most Italian journalists — who, as Vittorio Zambardino mentioned during our chat the other day, operate under a licensing system that tends to emphasize traditional standards over innovation. (It’s a system that’s “literally medieval,” several Italian journalists put it to me, referring to the guild structure the licensing system is based on.) It wasn’t until last summer’s Iranian revolution, said Carlo Felice della Pasqua, the editor of Il Gazzettino, that many Italian journalists had even heard of Twitter.

Still, there’s arguably a market for social media in Italy. In a country where, per one study, many more people trust online news than trust TV news, social media could make inroads; the challenge, it seems, is convincing mainstream journalists that it’s worth their while to engage in it.

That was the theme, at any rate, of the festival’s Social Media Editing panel, which brought together social media mavens from Italy (della Pasqua and the ONA’s Mario Tedeschini Lalli, who served as moderator), the rest of Europe (Robert Baltus of the Netherlands’ NOS News and Vicky Taylor, commissioning editor for new media news and current affairs for the UK’s Channel 4), and the U.S. (Josh Young, social news editor for the Huffington Post) to discuss the role of social media in the overall media landscape.

Instead of the standard “whence social media” discussion, the panel ended up focusing more on the benefits of integrating social media into newsrooms that currently lack them. Here are some of the arguments the participants laid out.

Developing communities

Robert Baltus began by taking on a common assumption: When it comes to journalists’ use of social media, “we don’t have to build a community,” he said. Not because community doesn’t matter, but because “the community is already there.” It’s up to news organizations not to be creators, but to be developers — to identify and nourish communities that already exist.

To that end, “we encourage all reporters, all presenters, and all individual producers on each program to have their own Twitter accounts,” Taylor said — because, among other things, that practice “humanizes a side of the newsroom.” Channel 4 has also established a presence on Facebook, given that a whopping 80 percent of its users have Facebook accounts. But they’ve concentrated their efforts on Twitter, she noted, because though the Twitter audience is smaller than its Facebook counterpart, its users tend to be more engaged.

Developing stories

What The Huffington Post has found, Young said, is that Twitter is “a really good place to source stories — and that’s true not just in politics, not just in entertainment…but in every single vertical we come across.”

Responding to Tedeschini Lalli’s question about managing the volume of information on social networks, Young noted the recent earthquake in Haiti, a situation (like the Iranian revolution) where there were relatively few professional reporters on the ground at first, but relatively many Twitterers: NGO staffers and the like. The outlet created a page, which contained three columns of tweets organized by group — journalist, aid worker, etc.— and preceded by banner text: “Should you be in one of these lists? Send us an email.” The point was to curate information in a way that leveraged technology to achieve two of journalism’s basic mandates: sourcing and verification.

“One of the beauties of the Huffington Post is that we’re also a technology company,” Young pointed out. “We have about 100 people, give or take; probably 15-20 percent of those people are developers.” And “figuring out a technologically-driven solution doesn’t have to be all that hard,” he said. In the Haiti example, in fact, “you can imagine a whole range of clever little technological solutions to solve problems like this.”

Distributing stories

“I’ve found that a really good way to show the success of Facebook and Twitter is to show people the numbers,” Young said. “One upshot of working at the Huffington Post is that we’re obsessed with numbers.” And while “it can be taken to excess,” he acknowledged of the HuffPost’s (in)famous SEO facility, ultimately that obsession is about connecting with readers. “How much do the people you’re writing for actually like what you’re writing, as evidenced by the clicks on the page?”

“As a journalist,” Taylor noted, “ultimately you want the most people as possible consuming your work.” And “social networks are a really efficient way of getting the maximum information out in the minimum time.”

They’re also an efficient way of measuring distribution. “Social media makes content quantifiable,” Taylor noted — so “it’s giving a sense to journalists that people are actually reading their content.”

Baltus echoed that sentiment: “In the Netherlands,” he said, “journalists always look for some proof of their findings.” And part of his job is to demonstrate that social media itself can act as a route to that proof — and to be, as well, “a kind of ambassador to the more conservative sites around.”

Experimentation as an end in itself

Ultimately, trying something and seeing whether it works — even though you risk failure — is much more valuable than trying nothing and sticking with the status quo, the panelists agreed. “Nobody really knows how social media is going to affect the news,” Young noted. Because of that, “I think the challenge for a lot of us is to find something vague but really fundamental that we can build experiments on” — and to keep “trying to iteratively get to something less vague and more concrete. Nobody really knows what the future will hold, and it’s important to be humble about that, and open-minded.”

POSTED     May 3, 2010, 12:30 p.m.
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