Since we’re on the subject of The New York Times, I thought I’d bring up a post on Mashable.com that put a particularly sharpened point on a thorn in the side of the New York Times’ new Social Media Editor, Jennifer Preston while at the same time throwing another spotlight on the debate about the importance of engagement when big businesses (especially august news organizations) embrace Social Media. The post pointed out that the Twitter account used by Preston had at the time lay dormant for a month, which in the online world is a virtual lifetime.
“Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not some Twitter-Nazi who thinks that everyone should tweet at all, let alone on a daily basis,” wrote the post’s author, Stan Schroeder. “But Twitter has been at the very core of various social media-related movements and occurrences, and a social media editor for a large media publication, with over 9000 Twitter followers, is expected to actually use the social media tools at her disposal.”
Preston politely responded in the comments section of the post that she was thankful for the helpful advice and was using her Twitter account “to listen and to determine how I can best bring value to the conversation and how I can most effectively guide our journalists.” It was a polite response but smacked of the kind of corporate insincerity that doesn’t always fly in the casual world of Social Media.
It seems to me that a Social Media Editor should already have a keen understanding of the conversations and contributions being bandied about. She should also be tweeting organically and not only as the outline of her job description allows. I suspect that the New York Times has already been “listening” for a while now considering that they have had active Twitter accounts for more than a year. That’s long enough to know better. They must have some idea of what they wanted to accomplish before promoting Preston to Social Media Editor.
While Social Media isn’t as old as newspapers, it’s been around as a concept without a catchy title for longer than most people realize. BBS, IRC, AOL’s walled garden, chat rooms, forums and even the advent of email were all part of an evolution into what we label as Social Media today. It didn’t just spring into existence from the heads of Evan Williams or Mark Zuckerberg fully formed. Simply sitting back and listening at this point for a massive news organization that has investigative journalists at its disposal seems silly and redundant. Taking time to listen may be good advice for a small business or a bank with regulation concerns or even Domino’s Pizza but does the New York Times need to listen for a month while it’s Twitter account goes cold enough to warrant a Mashable.com opinion piece? I think not.
Luckily, it seems that so far the New York Times has avoided the kind of backlash CNN had to endure when young Iranian citizens first started to protest election results in that country and people rushed to the cable news channel only to find the coverage nonexistent. Because CNN infamously competed with Ashton Kutcher in a race to 1,000,000 followers, Twitter users might have assumed that the organization was tuned into the events unfolding as they were passed along through Social Media. They hadn’t been listening and the #cnnfail hastag rose to a top position in the trending topics on Twitter along with some actual reports coming from Iran tagged as #iranelection.
The ability to engaged in Social Media is limited only by the collective imagination of the users, whether you want to listen more than you contribute or create a hub for your own big media company to engage the masses. A weekly #hashtag driven chat—a user-created concept—hosted on Twitter might be a great place to start. A perfect example is #journchat which engages PR folks and journalists in conversation about issues that affect both. The chat often looks for guest hosts and a Social Media Editor can offer to moderate a session. It’s a good investment of a few hours of time for a news organization looking for feedback on how Social Media is being used to extend the conversation, how to use it to improve the background of sourcing and reporting stories and what may happen in the future. And that’s just one of many ways a Social Media Editor can engage a specialized and enthusiastic audience of thoughtful contributors (for free I might add) through Twitter in a fully formed conversation space.
Listening to the chatter in Social Media, while important, is only one small part of the equation. Listening and reacting, sharing, creating, commenting, engaging and contributing are aggregate parts to Social Media. Otherwise you’d have no need to post at all but simply conduct some Twitter searches, set up Google alerts or hire a company that tracks hits on Social Media sites and then listen away.
If you’re a Social Media Editor on Twitter you need to use it or the community will call you out on it. Preston did the right thing by responding directly and within the comments of the actual post. But her excuse that she was listening didn’t seem to satisfy enough to stem the debate. Sure, she has to assist and advise a huge staff, but with the number of resources I imagine are at her disposal there’s no excuse not to contribute original content and updates about the Social Media plans of the paper. Or better yet to come out guns blazing with original, innovative ideas, especially if you work for the paper of record in an industry that is losing ground quick to the web in general.
After all this time, if the paper’s big idea is to continue to “listen” and they don’t have enough staff in place to assist the Social Media Editor in her duties at a company whose mission it is to inform, educate and report to the public, then the problems go much deeper than just a few navel gazing Social Media strategists’ comments (myself included.) The problem is that main stream media still doesn’t get where the trend is heading and how to steward the way through.
Note: When I originally posted this I regretfully neglected to attribute the source of inspiration for this article, @Thandelike Our conversation on Twitter after the initial Mashable piece inspired me to write this article and without her prodding and help I’d never have done it. Originally, I wrote this with @Thandelike suggestions, to be a New York Times, Op Ed piece. I submitted it but they never printed it, hence it appears here on my blog. Of course, while @Thandelike suggested and encouraged me to write this piece, I take absolute full responsibility for the content. @Thandelike is Anastasia M. Ashman. She lives in Istanbul, Turkey, a city I visited and loved, which is how I connected to her. She is Co-creator of expatriate literature collection Tales from the Expat Harem, coproducer of Near East’s 1st Global Nomad Salon and a Berkeley expat. You can read her blog, “Furthering the Worldwide Cultural Conversation.”