Finding the Sweet Spot for Journalism and Social Media

Times Dissolves Social Media Editor Post While USA Today Adds One -- and Journal Plugs Ahead

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NEW YORK ( -- The country's biggest newspapers are taking different tacks on social media.

The New York Times recently dissolved its social media editor post after less than two years, while USA Today simultaneously appointed its first social media editor and The Wall Street Journal continues to plug ahead with an outreach editor who's been in place for a year.

Jennifer Preston
Jennifer Preston
All three are trying to answer the same questions facing newsrooms everywhere: Should social media belong to a designated editor, to the whole staff or both? Is a staff evangelist for social media ever finished with her work? And what happens when the next big thing bubbles up?

Jennifer Preston, the New York Times editor and writer who stepped into the company's new social media editor position in May 2009, considered her primary responsibility evangelizing.

Reporters evolved
Despite some early resistance from Times staffers who considered Twitter and Facebook fads or extra work, she talked about three big uses that were relevant to the paper: reporting, curating content and engaging readers. She met one-on-one with reporters, helping them find sources to follow, share relevant content and direct readers to their stories.

"Then, people's use of Twitter evolved," said Ms. Preston. "One of the most exciting developments over the past year and a half has been seeing our reporters engage with our readers on these platforms. They aren't just using it as a wire service."

In August, Ms. Preston approached her superiors about decentralizing the responsibilities associated with her position, she recalled. "My primary responsibility of evangelist was no longer needed," Ms. Preston said. "Our journalists get it. They understand why these tools are valuable."

Though her post is fading away -- Ms. Preston is now covering social media as a reporter, especially as it relates to politics -- much of its oversight duties will be absorbed by Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news technology at the Times.

Moving target
Over at The Wall Street Journal, however, editors believe social media moves fast enough that a single dedicated person should be keeping tabs.

Managing Editor Kevin Delaney originally named an outreach editor, Zach Seward, last year because someone needed to oversee's social media strategy and its implementation, to work with reporters on how certain social platforms can help build traffic and even to help on social media etiquette.

Reporters welcomed the effort. "Our pitch is straightforward: Do you want to reach more readers?" he said. "Do you want to have more impact on your beat? Not a lot of reporters would say no to those options," Mr. Delaney said. "It's been relatively easy, and interest has been very high."

But unlike The Times, The Journal believes the post has enduring value. "Social media isn't a static thing," Mr. Delaney said. "You can't have a Twitter strategy and put it on cruise control for a few years. Social media needs to be embraced by the broader staff beyond a single person, but for us, it's critical we have a person focused on this."

Too decentralized
At USA Today, editors have decided that social media responsibilities were too decentralized. Last week they named former tech reporter and editor Michelle Kessler the paper's first social media editor.

"We're taking social media duties that were spread over many jobs and consolidating them into one position," Ms. Kessler said. "The goal is to put increased focus on it."

Though her day-to-day duties aren't definite yet, she'll be doing many of the same things that Ms. Preston and Mr. Seward have done: training employees, managing Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, and serving as the go-to support source on the editorial staff. "It's just a reflection that social media is a priority for us," she said. "We really want to talk with our readers, not at them."

Ms. Preston said she understands why media companies like USA Today and The Journal are putting social media in the hands of individuals, but said those roles work best when they have an expiration date. "It's an important first step," she said. "But ultimately, everyone has to own social media in an organization, not just one person."

There's plenty of work necessary to nurture a healthy social media culture at The Times and elsewhere, Ms. Preston allowed. "It's changing every day," she said. But the load has to be shared by the whole staff, she said.

"Department heads, section editors, journalists need to own the conversation that's taking place around the content they create," Ms. Preston said. "They need to be listening and engaging, because they're the experts."

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