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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.

Social media teams today: A summary of what we learned

First, our definition of the “social media team.”  The people handling social media in newsrooms might not strictly be a “team” and might be called something else —  “social engagement” or “audience development,” for instance. These teams might be comprised of one full-time person or a number of people who also have other newsroom duties.  For expediency, we’re using the term “social media team” generically in this report.

Our 25-question survey was offered through various channels to people who lead  social media in newsrooms. Fifty-nine people representing newsrooms of all types and sizes completed the survey. Many respondents did not want to be named in this report due to the sensitivity of their comments and, in some cases, their newsroom’s rules about speaking to the media. We also conducted interviews with dozens of experts and practitioners, and studied academic research on the topic. In addition, a group of knowledgeable reviewers provided input for early drafts of this report. (Their names appear in the acknowledgements section.)

Taken together, the information we gathered reveals a sobering picture of how social media teams operate today, and why.

There’s no question that some individuals and newsrooms are working creatively and diligently to retool their social media efforts, and with some success. At the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Glen Luke Flanagan was hired as digital content manager after working as a crime and public safety reporter at two other newspapers.

There’s no question that some individuals and newsrooms are working creatively and diligently to retool their social media efforts, and with some success.

While once a traditional social media role, it’s now undergoing changes as part of the news organization’s “2.0 initiative,” says Flanagan.  The strategy focuses on adding shareable digital elements to online stories; this story that included a police audio file had a reach of about 140,000. And this Pulitzer-prize winning story posted by a reader to the “Data is Beautiful” sub-Reddit prompted thousands of comments.

Marianne Graff, an assistant assignment editor at the Skagit Valley Herald, also assists with social media efforts in the newsroom. She’s tried using better strategies to select the 10 or so stories her staff posts per day to Facebook, and has encouraged the use of Twitter more for conversation and less for links.  “We’ve grown our Facebook following by 42 percent” in 18 months, Graff says.

And ProPublica created a position in which a reporter uses social media and “the power of the crowd” to find stories and help spread them throughout the newsroom.

But in general, our study found that a typical newsroom social media operation is largely unprepared — in structure, training and resources — to address urgent problems in journalism: the misinformation explosion and the decline of trust. Small to mid-size legacy print newsrooms appear most at risk, but newsrooms of all types and sizes face at least one or more of the issues we found:

  • Budget cuts and time constraints are hampering training on current best practices in social media.

  • There’s a tendency to focus on increasing the number of “followers” and content referrals from platforms, rather than thinking more deeply about content that can increase  knowledge and engagement among those followers.

  • While social media users struggle with the growing problem of  misinformation on social media platforms, the problem is largely unaddressed in many newsrooms.

  • Particularly in legacy print newsrooms, the culture still favors traditional reporting, leaving social media teams sometimes feeling removed from day-to-day journalism.

In this report, we examine each of these issues, how they impede efforts to improve trust and accountability, and what newsrooms can do to address and overcome them.

Training and qualifications: Gaps at all levels

Perhaps a leftover practice from the days when editors weren’t sure of the value of social media, some newsrooms still categorize social media jobs as “entry level”  or nearly so.  It’s a practice that puzzles experienced social media professionals.

“In a news environment, social media is the most grueling job in the newsroom,”  says Elyse Siegel, an audience development expert who’s worked at Huffington Post and now is managing editor at Swirled.

“It’s bizarre that people think this is an entry level position,” says Rubina Fillion, audience engagement director at The Intercept and a former social media editor at The Wall Street Journal. “That indicates managers think it has to do with age, and that is not accurate.” As an adjunct journalism professor, Fillion says she recognizes that just because someone is a “digital native” doesn’t mean he or she has a solid understanding of social media platforms and strategy.

One-third of API’s survey respondents said their team members had two or fewer years of experience.  A check of recent job postings for social media teams turned up job descriptions that highlight these requirements:

  • “Two years of social media experience in digital/editorial publishing.”
  • “Experience building an audience on Facebook and Twitter.”
  • “Experience using analytics to track audience growth.”
  • “College degree OR minimum 1 year relative experience in the field required.”
  • “Ability to work with a multitude of people and personalities while maintaining a professional work environment.”
  • “You must be flexible and able to work a variety of shifts including days, nights, weekends, and holidays.”

When people are hired directly out of college, or almost so, there’s a related problem: The lack of high-quality social media instruction in many college journalism programs.

“Simple things such as not being able to write a headline or lede have been commonplace with interns and new hires straight out of college. Social journalism? Forget it!” says a survey respondent who works in social media for a 45-person newsroom.

It’s bizarre that people think this is an entry level position. That indicates managers think it has to do with age, and that is not accurate.

About 87 percent of our survey respondents said fewer than half of their team members studied social media in college. And only 37 percent said all team members have a degree in journalism.

Past practices of hiring less-experienced people for social media teams are exacerbated by a lack of training, primarily due to decimated newsroom budgets over the past decade.

“I have been able to get some training on things like social video, post optimization, etc. because I sought it out on my own initiative, my own dime, and my own time,” says a social media producer who works for a large international news organization.

About half of survey respondents said they had attended outside training such as conferences or workshops. A majority of survey respondents said they had received at least some internal or “on the job” training.

“We hold regular social newsgathering training for the news division and don’t allow access to our internal social newsgathering tool unless that training has taken place,” said Dennis Powell, senior producer for multimedia newsgathering at ABC News.

At a Detroit television station, consultant visits and internal trainings are held quarterly, said Dustin Block, digital executive producer at WDIV.

“We have learned DIY-style,” said a social media team member at a legacy print magazine. The team’s manager, she said, is “primarily self-taught” and has attended Online News Association conferences to learn new skills.

About a third of our survey respondents said their teams are led by a full-time social media, engagement or digital editor. While some social media producers have been dispersed throughout the newsroom, some said that a team structure led by an experienced manager is more effective.

Says one social media manager in a mid-size newsroom in the northeast U.S.: “You need to make a case that [managing a social media team] is a full-time job. I’m trying to make a case every day for it. …I’ve told my editor, look, [the social media team] gets 90,000 visits every day. There’s not reporter who can do that.  Someone needs to be focused on inbound traffic.”

Team duties and strategy: A dated, fractured system

Many social media teams have grown in size over the past few years, according to survey responses and interviews. However, there’s a major caveat: They’ve been given many more duties, and some of those duties have little to do with social media.

Since November 2008, news publishers have lost about 44 percent of their staff, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In those newsrooms, specialization and focus sometimes take a back seat. Today’s social media team members find themselves publishing newsletters, working as web producers, monitoring comments, helping with video production and covering part-time reporting beats, among other responsibilities.

Today’s social media team members find themselves publishing newsletters, working as web producers, monitoring comments, helping with video production and covering part-time reporting beats, among other responsibilities.

“We have one online person and some reporters and photographers who occasionally tweet or Facebook,” said the managing editor of a northeastern newsroom. “Our staff is less than 20 percent of what it was in 1990, when the internet was a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. We have way too much to do with way too few people.”

Layoffs and a resulting reconfiguration of the social media team meant a bigger workload and little coordination at one large midwestern newsroom.  “We’re just keeping up with the day to day,” says a digital editor there. “I have only two hours at the end of the day to do social media.

Here’s how one social media team member described the arrangement in her large newsroom:

“The three of us who do social media full-time are also responsible for curating and troubleshooting our mobile app, monitoring the wire, answering phone calls from customers, searching for user-generated content during breaking news and coordinating requests for retweets from [other newsroom] accounts.”

Some newsrooms have handled the decline in staffing/increase in tasks by parceling out social media duties to the entire staff. Others have handed over responsibility for visual social media platforms — primarily Instagram and Pinterest — to photography staffs. In some newsrooms owned by major chains, a corporate or regional team shares social media duties.

At the 10-person Skagit Valley Herald in Washington, social media was once handled by one person. Now, it’s “more of a team effort and sometimes a competition,” says reporter Kera Wanielista. “Each reporter/photographer also has their own professional Twitter/Facebook pages.”

The fractured responsibilities and lack of staff can lead to a one-track mission: posting links and counting clicks.

“A newsroom that’s lost more than 40 percent of its staff in one year leaves little time to do more than post links,” said a social media staffer in a mid-sized Pennsylvania newsroom.

And according to our survey responses, that’s often what happens. We asked respondents to rank their activities in order of frequency, and by far the most prevalent function of social media teams is posting links to stories, photos and videos — followed by constant monitoring of traffic.  Dealing with misinformation was next-to-last.

The respondents also reported minimal interaction with 2016 election coverage. About a quarter of respondents said their role in 2016 election coverage was “not important;” 49 percent said it was “somewhat important.” Only 27 percent said it was “very important.”

In newsrooms where small staffs are overwhelmed and responsibilities are dispersed, building a strategy or a consistent voice is elusive.

A digital editor at a 20-person southern U.S. newspaper recalls: “At one point, reporters were instructed to post their own stories to the company’s Facebook page, but that made for bad strategy because there was not a cohesive plan around what was being posted and when. …The big obstacle is that social media is not a full-time job for any of our team members, so each of them are driven away by other responsibilities. We need a full-time team leader who can oversee strategy.”

A lack of strategy, or one that is critically outdated, “is going to be the downfall” of newsroom’ social efforts, says Elyse Siegel.

“I don’t see a lot of strategy; it’s push push push [content],” says Siegel. Social media should not be “just dissemination. Who’s your target audience and what do you want to grow?” A focus on building trust, correcting misinformation, tapping into influential audiences — those goals “should dictate where you’re investing resources,” said Siegel.

Newsroom culture: Silos still exist

A decade after the introduction of Twitter and Facebook into newsrooms, how to move social media ahead can often be a challenge of timing. In some places, there remains a lack of appreciation for the journalism potential of social media and a lack of knowledge about the skills and strategy needed to leverage it. In others, that desire may exist but not the capacity. There can also be unevenness: an interest at some levels of management but resistance elsewhere in the newsroom that can frustrate the most innovative people.

One social media team member said about a recent team leader: “His leadership in social media was so far ahead of the curve that it was dismissed as frivolous during his tenure.”

In some newsrooms, it’s clear that social media teams still are seen as digital paperboys who drop hyperlinks onto digital doorsteps. One newspaper chain calls its social media teams “distribution systems.”

There are others, however, where understanding social platforms are integral to the way content is created in the first place. The Washington Post’s digital managing editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz recently told the American Society of News Editors conference that editors examine what kind of story will do well in Facebook versus Twitter versus Instagram, for example.

Training in how to grow and measure traffic was by far the top response when social media teams were asked by API, “If you could learn more or get training about one specific topic related to your job, what would it be?”

Still, that focus on metrics can get in the way of efforts to listen to audiences. Says one social media professional about her recent role in newsrooms: “My work in social media always felt somewhat removed from the rest of editorial; like the writers were operating independently and my job was to catch and promote as much of their content as I could. We didn’t feel integrated.”

Another respondent at a small New England television station recalled her staff trying to work more directly with reporters — not entirely successfully. “Too many reporters are used to doing traditional journalism and like to stay in that routine,” she said. Other respondents noted an unwillingness by some reporters and editors to try anything outside of their “comfort zone.”

About a third of respondents credit a single team member with driving the success and initiatives of the social media team.

And even social media team members at a forward-thinking, digital-only news operation in Washington, D.C., expressed apprehension about approaching reporters with story questions, ideas and social strategy.

A lack of involvement by top editors in social media operations was clear in survey responses. About a third of respondents credit a single team member with driving the success and initiatives of the social media team. Only 15 percent of respondents say that top newsroom leaders are responsible for that success.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is debatable: Respondents also cited top management as roadblocks. When asked about obstacles to social media innovation and success, one typical response was “editors who aren’t open to ideas and feedback that feels foreign to them,” from a social media editor for a mid-size newsroom in the western U.S.

In a recent American Press Institute study of newsroom management, about 46 percent of managers said they felt “very comfortable” using social media.  The rest said they felt less comfortable or didn’t use it in their jobs at all.

Trust, facts and engagement: Soft response to hard problems

Knowing when and how to engage audiences — particularly during a contentious election — is tricky, and newsroom social media teams realize it. When survey respondents were asked to name “one specific activity you’d like your social media/engagement team to begin doing, or do more of,” the overwhelming top choice was engaging directly with audiences.

And when asked what training their teams needed, how to better engage audiences was No. 2 on the wish list.

In the absence of training, time and resources, a common response to the problem of misinformation is no response. That’s significant, because in the API survey, 56 percent of respondents say they encounter misinformation every day, up to several times a day. The others said it was once a week or less.

Knowing when and how to engage audiences — particularly during a contentious election — is tricky, and newsroom social media teams realize it.

None of the newsrooms reported a strategy for communicating with audiences who shared “fake news” and misinformation or mischaracterized the news organization’s own reporting.

“We typically don’t get involved” with people who post misinformation, said one newsroom manager, echoing a sentiment from many respondents to our survey.

“We are told not to engage with commenters or Twitter accounts at all,” said another respondent, whose newsroom has 20 Twitter accounts. Only the most egregious behavior will result in banning.

During the 2016 elections, one newsroom’s response to questions and comments about coverage was to post on Facebook “how to write a letter to the editor.”

About one-third of respondents said they try to correct misinformation on a regular basis. Two-thirds, however, said they “never” or sporadically make attempts to correct the misinformation.

“Sometimes it is not worth the argument, and we want to try to avoid getting in pissing matches with people,” said one respondent.

“People troll us all the time; we’re a polarizing organization. We largely ignore it and focus on our mission,” said a social media manager for a radio newsroom.

“Post-election, we see several ‘fake news’ comments in our Facebook posts a day. The trend is that these commenters are replying this way to anything that they don’t like or agree with,” said a social media manager at a large legacy-print organization. “The majority of these comments are unfounded. If we were to see a valid complaint or criticism, we would respond.”

Julia Haslanger, an audience engagement consultant at Hearken Inc. and a former Wall Street Journal engagement editor, points to several obstacles in interacting with audiences: “lack of time, resources, support, training and best practices, etc. … [M]any people with audience-centric titles are still spending the majority of their time and energy helping their news organization meet its business goals.”

A social media team that isn’t structured to hear and respond to audiences is not only an impediment to top-quality journalism, it’s a business problem too. Social media has been a life raft to newsrooms struggling to reach new audiences in an increasingly news-soaked society. But what happens when those platforms are corrupted and co-opted by misinformation? Content created by professional newsrooms also become untrustworthy. And newsrooms that are seen as irrelevant will find it tough to survive.

A social media team that isn’t structured to hear and respond to audiences is not only an impediment to top-quality journalism, it’s a business problem too.

Reinventing the newsroom social media team

What WGBH’s social media director Tory Starr calls “deciphering the intersection of social media and journalism” is a complex task. Reinventing a decade-old process in a culture not necessarily known for embracing change and creativity won’t be easy.

Building trust and fighting misinformation will be even harder. There’s something called Brandolini’s Law — also known as the “Bullshit Asymmetry Principle” —  proposing that “the amount of energy needed to refute misinformation is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”

But by working smarter, in a way designed for 2020, social media teams in newsrooms can make the truth louder — and consequently increase trust, decrease misinformation, and establish the role of media in a democracy more strongly than any other time in history.

Here are recommendations and best practices from practitioners, experts and researchers.

Fighting misinformation: Learn, teach and reach

Battling misinformation should be done by newsrooms in a cohesive manner, and the first step is learning how to spot and debunk it. Then, that learning should be shared with the newsroom, followed by a strategy to reach readers with correct information.

“If social media can be deployed to spread disinformation and sanitize hate, it can also be deployed to spread accurate facts and bolster progressive voices for equality and freedom,” Vox’s Aja Romano says.

Considering that two-thirds of Americans get news from social media, someone must tackle misinformation that thrives on those platforms. No one is better situated to do that than professional journalists who work with social media every day.

Preparing for that role likely requires a shift in duties, with a new focus on learning, teaching and reaching audiences — and maybe even a little psychology. Here’s what we mean:

A University of Washington study last year found that tweeting from verified journalism accounts — accounts given a blue checkmark after the user’s identity has been verified by Twitter — can help stop the proliferation of false information on Twitter. If social media journalists don’t bother to respond to misinformation “you’re essentially opening up a space for information to be spreading without your voice being a part of it,” said Kate Starbird, one of the study’s authors.

University of Wisconsin researcher Lucas Graves talks about a colleague who says people “do not carry beliefs around in their pockets like spare change.” Instead, they learn and develop opinions from exposure to information on social media and elsewhere. That makes it all the more imperative for news professionals to monitor that information for accuracy, and act when it’s inaccurate.

If social media can be deployed to spread disinformation and sanitize hate, it can also be deployed to spread accurate facts and bolster progressive voices for equality and freedom.

Chris Vargo, a University of Colorado professor who researches social media and misinformation, says the few efforts by newsrooms to fight misinformation “come from a good place” but they’re sparse, lack strategy, and are often too late.  “Minutes are important,” says Vargo. “Fighting fake news must be preemptive.”

WGBH’s Tory Starr was in Las Vegas during the October 2017 mass shootings, and saw firsthand how misinformation overpowered trusted journalism on social media. “Here’s what citizens need in times of crises,” she says. “They need journalists, versed in social media verification and reporting, helping the masses sort through the mess of information. They need clear, editorial voices on every platform that they can trust.”

This era of misinformation and declining trust is a challenging issue for all publishers. There may not be one simple solution. But there are some suggestions that involve social platforms that are worth pursuing; here are some of them.  (Tell us about methods you’ve tried and we’ll share in a follow-up blog post.)

Learn and teach. Verification — a key element of journalism — means keeping pace with the purveyors of misinformation. Those who work in social media in newsrooms should learn more about bots, fake accounts and how to spot them; how to block or report them; how to identify falsified photos, audio and video; and other basics of verification.

Develop strategies to correct misinformation, and build them into the day-to-day workflow.  For example, in the Skagit newsroom, reporters find that posting from their own accounts can be more effective than posting from the official newspaper account. “People seem to be less likely to continue to pick fights with someone who has a name and a face,” says reporter Kera Wanielista.

Here are some tips from other experts including Judith Donath, a Harvard University professor at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, who has written on effective ways to respond to misinformation.

  • State the truth rather than repeat the falsehood.
  • Use visuals to attract attention to your falsehood-fighting social media posts.
  • Fight memes with memes: Create your own shareable fact-based memes, to counteract the false ones found on social media.
  • Should you call a lie a lie? Have a conversation in your newsroom and be consistent.
  • When responding to those who spread misinformation on social media, attack the misinformation, not the people.
  • Focus on a positive message if you can find one, and recognize that people’s emotions play a part in what they believe (or don’t believe).
  • Take refresher courses like this one on how to tell a good poll from a bad poll.

Reach the influencers, then engage and follow. People tend to believe fake news and perpetuate misinformation in groups. So what’s the most efficient way to get factual information to fact-resistant communities that hold common misperceptions? Get information to the group’s leaders or “influencers” — the prolific posters and the users who are retweeted most often. Reaching into what former Harvard Business School professor Douglas Holt calls “amplified subcultures” is typically a marketing and branding effort, but the idea applies to online communities of all types.

Data supports this approach. When someone posts false information on Twitter, they are more than twice as likely to believe someone’s attempt to correct them if that person is a “mutual follower”  — someone they follow who also follows them — compared with someone they don’t “know” on Twitter, according to a Cornell University study.

What’s involved in finding influencers?  Here’s an overview:

  • In a small community, finding influencers on Facebook might be as simple as finding the most active, popular groups or pages about the topic you’re covering. Here’s an example from a community in New York.

  • With a little more time and effort, you can use search functions in Twitter or LinkedIn to find influential people on certain topics. This 2017 article from the Sprout Blog has more detail on how those searches work.

  • A deeper dive into influencers will require more effort and possibly tools and training. This Forbes article suggests some free tools to help simplify a more intense search throughout platforms.

  • For newsrooms with more resources and a talented technologist — or perhaps a partnership with a university —  “network mapping” can result in valuable information. A Boston University professor explains how he found Twitter influencers during the Ferguson riots and why influencers are valuable to news organizations: “These users are the ones that can share and spread messages through a network in a highly efficient manner – and if properly engaged with by journalists, they can not only help to find new angles on stories but also help to popularize stories that are published,” says Jacob Groshek.

Build trust. How can social teams use trust to build engagement and battle misinformation?

Says Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein: “A growing body of work…suggests that people are far more willing to believe bad news if it comes from people they trust, or from people who seem like them.”

And people who are consumers of “fake news” are “suspicious of mainstream media,” says Harvard’s Judith Donath.

A large body of work now is focused on building media trust through transparency, and social media teams are important part of this. The Trust Project at University at Santa Clara and its Indicators of Trust, the work of Joy Mayer and the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Trusting News Project, the University of Texas-Austin’s Center for Media Engagement and other such efforts all demonstrate how publishers can build bridges to audiences by showing their work, explaining their journalistic process, and sharing more about their reporters and policies.

A growing body of work … suggests that people are far more willing to believe bad news if it comes from people they trust, or from people who seem like them.

ProPublica’s managing editor Robin Fields says both transparency and data have helped increase its trust level among the nonprofit investigative news organization and its readers, many of whom began as readers of partner news organizations that work with ProPublica. “I think between that and our tendency to relentlessly show our work, we’ve tended to not get a huge amount of criticism,” she said.

Transparency includes being honest about mistakes. High-profile social media errors and typos have caused newsrooms some pain, particularly considering a current tendency among some audiences to label media mistakes as “fake news.”

Admitting you’re human is a good first step. “Mistakes happen. I get that. But it’s how we respond to the mistake and how quickly we respond and how sincerely we respond” that can help repair trust on social media, says Loyola University-Chicago communications school dean Don Heider. Develop a corrections strategy and publish it prominently, suggests Tory Starr.

Training the social media teams of tomorrow

Social media teams need updated and ongoing training to ensure they have the latest tools and knowledge to tackle misinformation and other emerging challenges as we head into 2018 and beyond.

Our survey indicated a strong desire among social media teams not only for more top-notch training on best practices in social media, but a concern the training they do get — in many cases “DIY training” as one respondent described it — was inadequate.

What should the newsroom’s social media team know to be effective in today’s social media environment?

First of all, says social media veteran Elyse Siegel, anyone working on a social media team “needs to have the skills of the finest reporter” in the newsroom.

A digital news editor who’s worked in social media for two years in a midwestern newsroom agreed, lamenting her lack of preparation for the 2016 election coverage and the current political climate.

“Social media is so all-encompassing,” she said. “Geography, politics, government, public affairs. …I didn’t know where Benghazi was when I got here.”

She also wants more knowledge about  coding, apps, audio production and other technology — topics she didn’t study as a graduate or undergraduate student.

Other survey respondents said their teams needed skills and practice in these areas:

  • Reaching audiences more effectively
  • Understanding metrics
  • Video editing
  • Keeping up with new tools that could make their work more effective and efficient
  • Managing Facebook and Twitter more efficiently and learning about other platforms

Jeff Elder, a veteran social media professional who now works at McAfee, says a passing knowledge of how platforms work isn’t enough. “Twitter is Spanish; Facebook is French; LinkedIn is German; Instagram is Italian,” he says. “If someone has not practiced the language, throwing them up there and expecting them to sound like a native is not just risky. It’s offensive to fluent speakers.”

When it comes to fighting creators of “fake news,” it’s us vs. them, so journalists need to be smarter than “them.”  But specific training in how to identify and debunk misinformation is rare in newsrooms. Too many journalists are still fooled by fake stories and deception.

The list of training needs, particularly for learning to reach audiences and managing the misinformation ecosystem, is ever-changing. And that makes it even more daunting for newsrooms struggling with budgets and staff cuts.

But the good news is that journalists can learn from each other, and those who work in social media can be especially generous with their time. Here are just a few ideas:

  • A number of Facebook groups have been created to offer support to newsrooms and academic programs.
  • The American Press Institute’s Changemaker Network is working to organize peer-to-peer training on a variety of issues.
  • Gather offers resources and video “lightning chats” to discuss better ways to bring newsrooms and communities together.
  • Yusuf Omar at CNN advocates pairing experienced journalists with “digital natives” and creating a process for them to learn from each other. “Seasoned journalists are more relevant than ever,” he said. “Their skill sets have never been more needed. WGBH’s Tory Starr agrees. “There still aren’t a lot of people who have journalism and social media in their backgrounds.”
  • Rubina Fillion recalls going through “digital boot camp” — required for the entire staff — when she worked at the Wall Street Journal. “Every newsroom should do this,”  she thought at the time. “And every newsroom still needs to do it.”

Hiring the social media teams of tomorrow

Recruit top candidates for social media jobs in your newsroom and require the same high standards you’d require in your best reporting positions.

Two important ideas were repeated often in our interviews with social media teams and experts: (1) Elevate social media positions beyond “entry-level” to attract experienced journalists who can better tackle today’s complex issues. (2) Seek out expert advice when hiring for skills that may be out of your comfort level.

Veteran social media editor Jeff Elder says under-qualified people are often hired when the “people who are hiring are just out of their element. He recalled working in a newsroom where “there were people who were hiring [for social media positions] and making decisions but they didn’t understand it themselves.”

A recent job description for a social media position

Experts in those skills could come from somewhere in your own company, even in departments outside the newsroom. Says Yusuf Omar: “I would look for the digital natives in the organization and get them into the decision-making meetings.”

Attracting experienced journalists is the next step. A smart way to combine journalism and social media skills is to list your job opening as a “social media content producer.”

At Forbes, where strategy has morphed from “digital first’ to “social first,” that’s the preferred job title.

I would look for the digital natives in the organization and get them into the decision-making meetings.

“Social media content producer is the new social media editor,” says Shauna Gleason, Forbes’ director of social media. Team members create unique content specifically for various platforms, and work with Forbes reporters to do the same.

Yusuf Omar advocates creative thinking during the recruiting process.

“I would find social influencers, people who are YouTube stars, people who have large followings on Snapchat, …good EPs [executive producers] who have worked in television,” he recommends.

Carrie Brown, director of social journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, warns hiring managers against the assumption that “every digital native is a social media expert.” In fact, she’s noticed a trend: Many college students and young graduates aren’t even using social media much, except for limited private channels.

“It’s a fear thing,” she says — fear that their social activity will be scrutinized by potential employers. Inactivity on regular social platforms keeps them from understanding its use (and abuse) as a mass medium.

Tory Starr at WGBH in Boston makes sure she’s in touch with the best journalism training in the country. The Annenberg School of Journalism’s JEDI program and CUNY’s master’s program in social journalism are two reliable sources of unusually talented and experienced graduates, she says.

Programs like these, she says, are filling the qualifications gap where applicants have social media backgrounds or traditional reporting backgrounds, but not both.

The JEDI program at USC-Annenberg is a potential source for well-trained social media journalists.

For this report, we asked veteran social media editor Scott Kleinberg to create the “ultimate social media job posting”— the perfect combination of skills to deal with the newsroom of 2020. Click on the image below to see what he proposes:

Making social media a critical part of accountability journalism

A woman who’s worked in social media for three large East Coast newsrooms still hears her job described with phrases like these: “the social candy team” or “web monkeys.”

And the attitude still exists in some corners of some newsrooms, she said, that the “social media team is there to promote my story, not do journalism…that we’re the second-class citizens of the newsroom, not real journalists.”

Frustration with a seeming entrenchment in newspaper culture also is evident. Said one social media manager about a recent newsroom meeting: “We wasted 45 minutes talking about what part of the paper the story will go in. I could think of a lot better ways to fill that time.”

At The Boston Globe, a crisis was a learning moment for social media practices, says Jason Tuohey, deputy managing editor for audience engagement. In 2013, they deployed social media like they never had before — to cover the Boston Marathon bombings.

Using social media during breaking news broke some cultural barriers, and a current newsroom “reinvention” is working to merge social and news efforts more deeply. A former reporter was hired as an analytics editor. An audience engagement team was launched, along with a “real-time editor” who selects the five best stories of the day to promote. Another editor focuses on longer projects, and there’s a newsletter editor.

Being available and communicating well and often can be a key to the kind of cultural shift around social teams that publishers need, Tuohey says. “Everyone on this team is hypervisible,” he says. They share data on what subscribers are reading, and how journalism goals and business goals “sync up.”

“We explain how much traffic is pulled in by social media alone,” says Tuohey, and it’s “sometimes as much or more than people going directly to the website.”

At Forbes, the “social first” strategy is clearly communicated, employees say. As part of that strategy, even the organization’s content management system (CMS) is being rebuilt to align with the social-first strategy and a social media sales manager has been hired.

Forbes’ social media team creates its own content but also regularly pitches stories to beat reporters. “There is a culture of openness,” says Shauna Gleason.

Some specific ways to help merge newsroom cultures:

  • At the Times-Shamrock in Pennsylvania, a weekly meeting called “Tweets & Treats” is led by an assistant news editor. “We discuss the past week’s metrics, plan for the upcoming weekend and brainstorm ideas for special projects, events and coverage,” says executive editor Larry Holeva.
  • In some newsrooms, social media team responsibilities include regular discussions with reporters and editors about digital practices: writing headlines, thinking about mobile stories, adding digital elements to stories. One social media team member called it “a concierge service” and a “bridge” for her newsroom’s digital divide. When Tory Starr worked at PRI’s “The World,” she introduced a new skill challenge (with prizes) to the newsroom each week to help reporters create social-first reporting on their topic.
  • What can newsrooms learn from brands? Commercial industries have products to sell, and so do news organizations. The difference is that, unlike in newsrooms, most people who work for big brands “are all invested in the product side.” When that happens, better and more creative ideas surface, said one New York social media editor in our survey.
  • Beat reporters and social media teams should work together on projects that combine all skills; for instance, finding the community’s “influencers.” If a story needs voices from local coal miners, social media teams can find those influencers on social media and facilitate a conversation, either at an event or a private Facebook group chat. “Meet people where they are,” said Rubina Fillion.

Efforts like these build upon themselves, says Yusuf Omar, and in time will “radiate and expand” to create a newsroom that meets both journalistic and business goals.

“It’s what publishers need to focus on,” says Omar. “The long game.”

Final thoughts, acknowledgements and a call for your ideas

What can you do now to create a social media team that’s ready for 2020? Here’s a quick list of ideas from experts in this report.

  • To build community interest and engagement, try starting the conversation on social media and continuing it in your publication or broadcast, rather than the other way around.

  • Resist the temptation to post every link to every piece of your content. Focus on fewer items and the best platforms for that content.

  • If no one on your hiring team has a deep understanding of social media in newsrooms, hire an outside consultant or bring in an expert from another part of your company to help interview social media job candidates.

  • Work with your local university to help update social journalism curriculum to match current and future newsroom needs.

  • A solid first step in getting to know your audience: Check the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder for deep data about your town or region.

  • Create a closed, subscribers-only Facebook group for newsrooms that use a subscription model.

  • Can’t afford offsite conferences? Tap the experts in your own news organization for peer-to-peer training. API’s Changemaker Network can help.

  • Start building a cohesive voice and strategy — even if your social media duties are spread throughout the staff — by creating a comprehensive guidebook that can be updated easily.

  • To learn more about reaching audiences and producing engaging content, hire a smart “social influencer” from a social platform as a consultant or full-time staffer.

  • To develop better strategies to fight misinformation, study the strategies used by the purveyors of that misinformation: hyperpartisan sites, fake news creators, and trolls.

  • If you want to deeper understanding of the social media influencers in your community, try partnering with a local university on a “network mapping” project.

Some closing thoughts

Over the past decade, publishers and newsrooms have examined and improved a number of newsroom functions: video, metrics analysis, content management systems, blogs, longform journalism and more. Rethinking the role and structure of the newsroom social media team might be another time-consuming project on a long list, but here are some reasons that make it worthwhile:

  • The shrinking newsroom can’t afford social media silos — or any silos. Newsrooms need real participation from every staffer to report and produce significant journalism, to battle epic amounts of misinformation on social media, and to address the downward spiral of trust.
  • Social media has advanced past a basic delivery system for content links — a function that technology can now perform — but too many newsroom leaders have not fully recognized that.
  • The number of clicks on those links are no longer an accurate measurement of value or success.

The proposals for changing job responsibilities, training, hiring and structure may represent a sea change in most traditional newsrooms. And those changes don’t come without a price. But, as publishers have learned so well, difficult choices and smart strategies are constantly necessary in 21st-century journalism.

If you have success stories, examples or questions, please let us know.

And if you’d like to reimagine your social media team, we’d like to help. Contact us.

Acknowledgments

We’d like to thank all who were interviewed for this report and those who responded so thoughtfully to our social media survey. In addition, we appreciate the support and input from:

  • The Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship Program
  • Joshua Benton, Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University
  • Ann Marie Lipinski, Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University
  • Tory Starr, WGBH social media director; and editors at PRI’s The World, NOVA, Frontline, and WGBH in Boston
  • Tim Schmitt, Gatehouse Media
  • Jessica Huff, The McClatchy Company

We’re also grateful to these experts who reviewed early drafts of this report and provided valuable feedback: Joy Mayer, leader of the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Trusting News Project; Michelle Amazeen, Boston University assistant professor of mass communication, advertising and public relations; and Carrie Brown, social journalism director at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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