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After a decade, it’s time to reinvent social media in newsrooms

For newsrooms, the social media tumult began a decade ago.

In 2008, journalists new to digital media in legacy print newsrooms were trying to adapt to a Twitter invention called the hashtag. Facebook was confounding them, and MySpace was dying just when some were beginning to understand it.

Then came the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, largely chronicled on social media. An American student was rescued from jail with a one-word tweet. A few months later, Captain Sully crash-landed on the Hudson River and social media photos told the story.

As social media grew as a platform and even sometimes a source for breaking news, journalists began to wonder what it might mean for journalism. Newsroom managers were treading slowly, creating guidelines and restrictions for a medium that was designed to be unrestricted.

“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,” The Washington Post’s then-executive editor Marcus Brauchli said in 2009. Some print-focused newsrooms argued that posting information to social media before it was published in the newspaper was “scooping ourselves.

Scott Kleinberg, a longtime social media editor in Chicago and New York, remembers the difficulty explaining why his role was necessary. “One of the editors I worked with called it mumbo jumbo,” he recalled.

Today, much has changed. Publications can see from analytics how much traffic is coming through social media. Journalists make up a major component of Twitter users. Some newsrooms have required social media quotas from reporters.

And news publishers are facing other issues spawned and cultivated by modern social media: the proliferation of misinformation and “fake news,” and its role in the decline of trust in professional media.

But as this report will detail, social media teams, on the front lines of both issues, still are largely doing what they’ve done for a decade. A new API survey of 59 U.S. newsrooms conducted for this report shows that posting links to their own content, mostly on Twitter and Facebook, is still by far the top activity of the average social media team. While organizations like Hearken, GroundSource and the Coral Project are working to help newsrooms use social media for audience engagement rather than just for clicks, there is still much progress to be made — in using social platforms as tools to understand communities and to bring audiences into news creation.

What’s more, the majority of newsrooms only “sometimes” or “very rarely” address misinformation on social media and comment platforms, our survey shows. And long-term strategies and planning are rare.

It’s time to rethink the newsroom social media team: its structure, mission, responsibilities and skill sets.

In this strategy study, the American Press Institute, in conjunction with a fellowship awarded by the Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship program, examines a reimagined social media team that refocuses its efforts on urgent issues impacting today’s media:

  • Finding and fighting misinformation, as journalists on the front lines of “fake news”;
  • Engaging audiences with a goal of increasing trust in professional reporting;
  • Participating as full partners in the newsroom’s accountability reporting efforts.

Newsrooms face a non-stop barrage of challenges today: dwindling revenues, staffing cuts, cultural issues in and outside of the newsroom. So it’s understandable that you’re not in the mood to tackle another. We hope to show how rethinking some outdated newsroom social media processes can have a positive impact on those challenges — by helping to improve trust and engagement, increasing subscribers, and enhancing staffers’ skills and efficiency.

We’ll propose some ideas that may be relatively easy but have great potential in addressing newsroom challenges and preparing for future social media needs. Other ideas are a bit more complex but, we believe, ultimately achievable. Here are a few of the essential strategies included in our report:

  • 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.

  • Check the corporate world outside of journalism to help learn more about engagement strategies. How do they reach new customers and keep current ones happy? Study 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 that already exists in your topic area or community. You can get involved with meetups or start one yourself, seek grant-funded projects, and get involved with organizations that offer tools and guidance.

  • 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.

Why now? A change in structure and mission is critical today considering the growing revelations about misinformation, disinformation, “fake news” and declining trust in media. Political campaigns are gearing up for the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections, and newsrooms must as well.

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote this about the 2016 elections: “To put it bluntly, the media missed the story” about the anger and frustration of American voters who “wanted something different. And although these voters shouted and screamed it, most journalists just weren’t listening.”

Many of those voters were shouting and screaming on social media. Yusuf Omar, formerly CNN’s senior social reporter and now co-founder of the startup Hashtag Our Stories, says journalists failed to listen to people’s stories and “create meaningful content out of that.”

“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,” Omar says.

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