Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Is the news industry ready for another pivot to video?
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Nov. 14, 2017, 9:37 a.m.
Audience & Social

“When it comes to Twittering for The Post, our senior editors should know beforehand if a reporter plans to Twitter or otherwise live-blog something she is covering.”

That 2009 quote, from former Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli, illustrates how…differently social media was treated in newsrooms back in the day. (And yes, I mean just eight years ago.) Facebook and Twitter have revolutionized how news organizations share content as they struggle to paddle alongside the companies’ algorithmic speedboats. At the same time, social media teams in newsrooms today are unprepared for the challenges of misinformation and online reporting facing the journalism industry, according to a new report from the American Press Institute’s Jane Elizabeth.

(Elizabeth was a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow and spent a few weeks here at the Nieman Foundation researching this topic, thanks to the support of the Knight Foundation.)

Elizabeth used a 25-question survey to dig into the social media team strategies of 59 newsrooms across print, broadcast, and digital backgrounds. The top activity of the teams today, according to the survey’s results, is still just posting links to the organization’s own content on Twitter and Facebook. The untapped potential, the report suggests, is in finding and fighting misinformation on the “front lines” of social media and engaging versus just marketing to audiences to continually increase trust in professional reporting.

The report’s top strategies to fight back:

  • Calculate the time you spend posting links to all your content. Then, trade that effort for a stronger and more strategic focus on your top content that has deep value for readers, or, if it is part of your strategy, also is likely to go viral that day.
  • Find untapped skills and good strategists in your newsroom and in other departments. Advertising and marketing departments can be a great source of data about audiences, for example. Sportswriters are often well-versed in building and maintaining social audiences. Someone in the photo department may have a loyal following on Instagram; a feature writer might be an expert in Snapchat videos.
  • Tap the knowledge of the corporate world outside of journalism to help learn more about engagement strategies. How do they reach new customers and keep current ones happy? Check the social media accounts of local companies to see who’s engaging their audiences and how they do it. Follow national public relations and marketing groups for advice that could be used in a newsroom.
  • Leverage the social media knowledge and assistance that already exist in your topic area or community. You can get involved with meetups — or start one yourself — and seek grant-funded projects and online groups that offer tools and guidance with no strings attached.
  • Get to know your region, and your current and potential news consumers. A surprising number of local journalists aren’t familiar with the demographics of the communities they cover. To begin, check the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder for deep data about people in your town or region.

“If you had looked in the right places in social media, you might have found signs that would have helped you predict the U.S. election,” Yusuf Omar, the cofounder of the startup Hashtag Our Stories and previously CNN’s senior social reporter, is quoted as saying in the report. But many newsrooms, especially small- to mid-size legacy print newsrooms, are largely under-resourced and unprepared to actually participate in addressing the “misinformation explosion.” Too many organizations are focused on the quantity of followers versus the quality of interactions, and the traditional structure of reporting in newsrooms isolates social media teams from the production process.

Additionally, many social media team members are new hires, often without any professional training in social media strategy or execution, brought on straight out of college as “digital natives,” Elizabeth wrote. Social media shouldn’t always be considered an entry-level position, even though about half of survey respondents noted they have attended workshops, conferences, or had other on the job training: “We have learned DIY-style,” one team member from a legacy print magazine said.

“In some newsrooms, it’s clear that social media teams still are seen as digital paperboys who drop hyperlinks onto digital doorsteps,” Elizabeth writes. In some newsrooms they’re still considered “the social candy team” and “web monkeys.” But they’re encountering what many consider to be the most urgent problem facing journalism today: 56 percent of respondents said they come across misinformation on a daily basis. It seems that they are itching to do more about this, with survey respondents overwhelmingly choosing “engaging directly with audiences” as the top activity they’d like to spend more time on.

The report also includes tips for merging newsroom cultures with the social media team, guidelines on hiring for professional social media managers, and 11 ideas for building a social media team equipped for the misinformation of the future. See the full findings here.

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