- Advice For NYT's Social Media Editor: Don't Fix What Isn't Broken?And Do A Lot Of Listening

David Kaplan
Wednesday, May 27, 2009; 11:06 AM

Just as her promotion to social editor was being announced this morning, Jennifer Preston posted her first tweet. She introduced herself and asked "How should @nytimes be using Twitter?" At that point, she had a few dozen followers, but by the end of the day, she had amassed more than 2,400. While she probably got many more suggestions than she knows what to do with, she did single out a few for responses, like @bewildia's suggestion that NYTimes tweets should also "link to key source info, e.g., a link to [California] court's ruling." She also agreed with another respondent's counsel and will use social media more for listening than tweeting her own views.

Preston was not available for an interview; I would have liked to ask for her thoughts on the recent attention NYT staffers have gotten for posting details of a recent meeting on social media and whether she feels a strict policy governing employee blogging activities, like Bloomberg is doing, is something she'll explore.

But as to what approach she should take in her new role as social media editor, which in Preston's case will involve behind-the-scenes coordinating with the newsroom as opposed to managing a new section, I solicited some thoughts from her counterparts at other publications, including BusinessWeek Online, and The Globe and Mail. While only a handful of pubs have someone to help navigate news outlets' social media focus?such as the Austin American-Statesman's Internet Editor Robert Quigley and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's arts writer Mary Schumacher?the job is likely to become a common news organization fixture. And so, Preston's efforts will be closely watched at other news organizations, which are all trying to decide how open or restrictive to make their policies on staffers' blogging and tweeting, as newspapers and magazines look for ways to better connect with their readers. More after the jump

?Don't fix what isn't broken: A number of editors I spoke to commended the NYTimes' Twitter army, including David Carr, (@Carr2n) and Jennifer 8. Lee (@jenny8lee. ) Shirley Brady, BW Online's community editor, says Preston has a head start working with "some Twitter rock stars, including @BrianStelter and @palafo [City Room blogger/editor Patrick LaForge], so I'm sure her colleagues have already given her plenty of smart advice. I imagine Jennifer will be busy asking a lot of questions, listening & soaking it all in these first few weeks. She'll need her reporter & editorial chops, in a sense, covering this space & bringing back dispatches from the frontlines to her colleagues." Andrew Nystrom, senior producer for Social + Emerging Media for, who has been in a similar role for about two years, told me he was given the chance to take a few months and research best practices at other papers. "I was able to take some time and compare what other papers were doing and that was really valuable," Nystrom said. "We're entering phase two and my main goal is to get the word out about our story-telling, content and multimedia. We're looking to reach people beyond the website and I imagine that's what [Preston] will be doing as well." As for my advice, Preston should start by taking a look at Twitter & New York Times Reporters Ethnography, which is a study of the paper's use of Twitter by a University of Wisconsin journalism student who started off skeptical of the mix between social media and reporters, but has become less averse to the idea. The author's main fear was that reporters would lose credibility by divulging too much professional and personal information, though that seems to be balanced by the usefulness of finding new sources and ultimately improve the quality and breadth of their work. Additionally, the enthnography feels that NYT reporters spend too much time promoting their own work. At the same time, he applauds the humorous posts from reporters like Saul Hansell (@shansell), which allow readers to get a better sense of their personality and making it possible for a stronger connection between readers and journalists.

?Keep control loose: Almost all the social-media editors I spoke to warned against the temptation to rein in reporters' and editors' urges to discuss what's on their mind. As E&P noted last month, following the WSJ's order barring employees from "friending" sources, a number of other pubs have mostly been following the looser, "use your best judgment" approach taken by the The site's Andrew Nystrom explained the paper's recently revised guidelines on acceptable social-media conduct: "We basically tell people to act the way they would at an industry cocktail party, where they're representing the organization. Don't do anything that would embarrass yourself or the paper. But we realize it's an evolving area and you can't have a strict policy."

?Understand the meaning of "engagement": Matthew Ingram, communities editor at The Globe and Mail, in an e-mail message, said that readers "don't want to interact with brands, or with faceless entities or institutions, however vast and reputable they might be. They like to interact with other human beings?and the benefits of that interaction can not only help journalists do their jobs, by providing feedback and input on stories, but the relationship that is created with readers can also have powerful spin-off benefits for media outlets that choose to engage using these kinds of tools." In terms of what The Globe and Mail has done to try to bring readers into the tent, Ingram has high hopes for a new feature called the Public Policy Wiki, which is designed to let readers provide feedback about public policy issues covered online. Soliciting feedback, "means really engaging, not just pushing out links or promoting content?in other words, listening and responding as well as asking for attention."

?Keep the commenters, get TimesPeople on track: One social-media editor who offered some thoughts anonymously provided an assessment on the NYT's efforts in this area. So far, there's been a lot to be impressed by, with a few notable spots that desperately need fixing. Health blogger Tara Parker-Pope was singled out as someone who does a great job of responding to reader comments, while this same editor feels media columnist Virginia Heffernan must rethink her mostly negative views of commenters (see her two separate posts here and here). But as a whole, seems to have embraced commenters widely, even having done a few stories based on reader comments. "They aggregate others' news and don't pretend to be the final word; and just get it, even if it's not saving their financial bacon," one social-media editor told me, adding that, "on the down side, it looks like TimesPeople has been a flop, so their own social network hasn't gained any traction."


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