Why social media matters to journalists

I’ll be honest, I don’t really enjoy Facebook, Twitter or even LinkedIn. Often times keeping up with them feels like just one more chore. But, if you’re going to be a journalist, I think it’s inevitable that you’ll have to get plugged into the social media scene.

Consider these excerpts from a job description for an “Interactivity Editor” at Gannett:

  • Adept at all forms of social networking, interacts regularly with audience to respond to concerns/questions; able to spot trends in responses and direct information to appropriate editorial staffers for action; able to serve as the audience’s voice in editorial meetings.
  • Mines readership and census data; visits communities regularly; reaches out to audience through blogs and forums for insight; develops social media strategies for creating community interaction.

Few of us could have envisioned a job like that even just a few years ago, but now terms like “crowdsourcing” and “scanning for tweets” are part of everyday conversations in some newsrooms.  At the Future of Journalism Conference in Cardiff, Wales researchers from around the world gathered to talk about what the next few years might hold for the profession.  Social media invariably became part of the discussion whether the topic was economic challenges or ethics.

Alfred_HermidaAlfred Hermida from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada has been researching Twitter and the role it’s beginning to play in journalism.  He speaks of it as an “awareness system” – a term he’s borrowed from computer science to describe the way Twitter makes people aware of other people’s activities and connections.

But Hermida also believes it may be leading to a new form of newsgathering that he calls “ambient journalism.”

“It’s multi-faceted and fragmented,” Hermida said.  “Each tweet is limited on its own, so you have to try to see them as a collection, a system.”

Hermida used the Iranian election coverage as an example.  At its peak, there were 200,000 tweets per hour coming out of Iran.  As isolated fragments, the information wasn’t all that valuable, but as a collection of information, it was all quite useful.

Hermida says what journalists need now are better tools to evaluate the flow of information coming from Twitter and other forms of social media.  He pointed to twitscoop.com, which tries to identify Twitter trends, so you can see what topics are getting the most discussion.

Then there’s nowpublic.com, which allows you to search for “conversations” – often on breaking news topics – and find related photos, video and links to more information.  Checking the site while writing this post, the topic was Pittsburgh police ordering marches to stop at the G20 summit.  The information compiled included  60 photos and three related videos.

Still Hermida calls these tools rudimentary and believes we need more means to analyze and contextualize Twitter and other social media systems.  As journalists begin to act more as curators of information, the ability to sift  through tweets and posts and other social media sources will become more critical.


1 comment for “Why social media matters to journalists

  1. Deb Wenger
    September 25, 2009 at 9:20 am

    Interestingly, in a post today on Journalistics, it appears that a majority of journalists ARE tapping in to social media.

    “According to a new survey from Middleberg Communications and the Society for New Communications Research (SNCR), as reported in PRWeek , 70 percent of journalists said they use social networks to assist in reporting (compared to 41 percent last year).”

    Of course, this doesn’t preclude the need for more and better tools to track and synthesize social media content , rather it creates more urgency.

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