“Did we get something of journalistic value?” - Liz Heron on social media success at news:rewired

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 7 February 2012

Last week Liz Heron gave the opening keynote address at news:rewired, explaining some of the social media work that the New York Times does, and offering some advice for those who are also involved in doing it for others.

She started by commenting on the pace of change - suggesting that even when she spoke at last year’s BBC Social Media Summit, the conversation still seemed to be around “should we be doing social media”, whereas now the focus had shifted to “how can we be doing this well, and distinctively”. Nobody, she thought, a year ago would have envisaged the President of the USA being quizzed about the CIA drone programme in a Google+ hangout.

For the forthcoming US election the New York Times have begun employing the hashtag #asknyt, and have journalists on hand to fact-check anything being said in debates, or even the State of the Union address, if the audience ask them. This real-time response invites the audience in to shape their coverage. For debates they curate Twitter lists in advance of interesting people who maybe have a unique insight, like people involved in the local campaigns. These tweets can then be embedded in the New York Times front page as the debate progresses. They also have something Liz jokingly called “the live blog of the live blogs”, looking out across the rest of the media sphere to bring together the best commentary and analysis from the web.

Liz described the New York Times audience as “a highly engaged, whip-smart, passionate group” who were often a useful source of information in their own right. She explained how she has encouraged foreign correspondents in particular to grow their Facebook communities as they could be invaluable in gathering local stories. For their “iEconomy” series they had gathered user reaction and testimony in Mandarin on the web in advance of publication, and then translated that into English to form part of the community response around the topic.

She also explained that “iEconomy” had been chosen as the name for the series because it would make a good hashtag to keep the conversation going on Twitter. Liz thought the “science” of choosing a good hashtag was important - something echoed later in the day when Nicola Hughes pointed out that people still tweet with the hashtag #iranelection even though the “green revolution” is two-and-a-half years old, because the network knows that this hashtag can be followed, whereas new ones using Persian or Arabic words will probably not be noticed and followed in the West.

“We're pretty jazzed about the hangouts”

The New York Times approach has been on “an evolution towards engaging our users with everything we do”, with over 400 journalists on Twitter, and 50+ experimenting with the new Facebook subscribe feature. Liz stressed the need to assess each platform and work out the strengths and weaknesses of it in order to decide how best to use it.

In the case of Google+ it has been the “revolutionary” hangout feature. “We're pretty jazzed about the hangouts” she said. They didn’t want to recreate the whole New York Times experience within Google+, but Liz stressed the value of the “deep discussion” takes takes place on there.

She did ask the audience, if, like her, they had “social media platform fatigue”. Pinterest is obviously the new kid on the block at the moment, but over the course of the last couple of years news organisations - or indeed any organisation - will have had to consider how they prioritise between Facebook, Twitter, Google+, social media dark horse LinkedIn, Quora, Tumblr, Foursquare and so on and so on...

Measuring success. And cost

One of the questions after Liz’s talk was how much time this all took. Whilst admitting there was an up-front time cost in getting people comfortable with using tools, she actually thought that a lot of social media use in the newsroom actually saved time. “Once they are sophisticated user,” she said “it becomes part of their process. It is a tool they can’t afford to ignore anymore.” She pointed out that sending out a 140 character update on Twitter was effectively the first draft of the kernel of the story.

In terms of success, it wasn’t about raw numbers anymore. “Success is not traffic. That is not where we are at right now.” Rather than numbers, they are interested in sources, mentions, and interactions. The thing to measure, Liz says, is “Did we get something of journalistic value?”

Next...

Over the next few days I’ll have some more notes from news:rewired, including some thoughts about the ethics of journalistic uses of social media, and my take on a rather feisty debate about the future business sustainability of the Guardian.

This is one of a series of blog posts featuring my notes from news:rewired:
“Did we get something of journalistic value?” - Liz Heron
“The Guardian’s Facebook app” - Martin Belam
“Great for users. Great for publishers. And great for Apple” - Alex Watson
“The Economist’s shift to digital”- Tom Standage
“The alchemy of media business model innovation” - François Nel
“Social media, investigative journalism, ethics and security” - Nicola Hughes
“Less is more - social media at the BBC” - Chris Hamilton
“Watch this (social) space...” - Darren Waters
“Me and my big photo of Mark Zuckerberg” - Nate Lanxon
“Social media optimisation” - Q&A

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