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Jun. 7 2009 - 11:01 pm | 89 views | 1 recommendation | 8 comments

Q&A with Times’ Social Media Editor: All about the conversation

New York Times Building

Image by freek dech via Flickr

Two weeks ago the New York Times announced Jennifer Preston, a veteran Times editor, was created as the paper’s first ever social media editor. The announcement came as a surprising but logical reaction to the sudden and exponential rise of Twitter, and the continuing impact of Facebook, Digg, etc., on traditional media. Preston told me that followers of the Times main Twitter feed, combined with stories shared via Facebook, account for 1.45 million viewers daily. Combined with the Times’ dozens of other official and unofficial feeds, the Times is approaching two million social media followers, daily. Put in those terms, wrangling social media seems like a daunting task for a staff of one.

I wanted to know what Preston sees as her mandate at the Times. Far from being an über-hip web 2.0 whiz-kid, she’s a veteran journalist. I think that tells us a lot about the way the Times is thinking about the role of social media editor. But not enough. I asked her a few questions by email about her new role and approach, her work with the Times’ technology team, her thoughts on the Edmud Andrews/Meghan McArdle/Clark Hoyt kerfuffle, and how the Times will cover itself using social media. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our email conversation.

true/slant: How is the new institutional attention to social media going to benefit Times reporters, as far as the way they tell their stories or do their jobs?

Jennifer Preston

Jennifer Preston

Jennifer Preston: It is important to note that my new role does not mean that The Times is just getting started in this space. The Times has been committed to building and maintaining a leadership position in social media  — and extending the brand for some time now.

Of course, as you know, multiple Times journalists have been successfully using social media sites for awhile. They have used social media successfully to help gather tips for their reporting, get feedback, and track trends. It has also been a great way for  them to further engage with readers. Our overall efforts in social media have helped provide increased awareness that  NYTimes.com is not just the newspaper online — but a dynamic site where people can experience some of the finest examples of multimedia storytelling on the Web, smart interactive graphics that bring together technology, tools, data and journalism in creative new ways, and, of course, a thoughtful, serious-minded  community talking about the issues, news and trends of the day.

Have you checked out Times People? It is a very cool tool that we are working on that promotes sharing, community. In regards to community, we have hundreds of comments from readers and users every day. Building a community and engaging with our readers is something that we have done for years. It is a big part of what we think about everyday, ie. how we can involve readers in our news report. Take, for example, the new Lens blog…the collection of photos that readers shared with us from Grateful Dead concerts, the Inauguration.

Another example of engaging our readers with our content is the Living With Less feature, where individuals share survival, cost-cutting strategies, their stories , adn their mood on the economy. My new assignment is aimed at helping  our journalists explore and  expand the use of social media.

t/s: I’m thinking of that question in two parts. First, how is [social media] benefiting them now, whether it be traffic, conversation, feedback, discussion, sources, etc?

Preston: Based on the enthusiasm of some our early adopters here, the feedback, the conversation, the tips,  and the ability to monitor trends has all been helpful to their reporting.

t/s: And second, how might [social media] benefit them in the future, with a social media editor in the mix?

Preston: I expect that my role will evolve over time as more and more of our journalists (by journalists, I am including bloggers, technologists, web producers)  become more familiar with the benefits of using various social media sites.  I will  be a point person for them, someone here in the newsroom they can turn to for guidance , for training, for tips, for ways to help them keep up with the rapid developments taking place in social media. For example, we may come up with plans to live tweet certain events. We did that for the inauguration. And with the GM bankruptcy, we had a couple of reporters covering the proceedings who were sending updates via Twitter. Maybe we can take a more strategic approach to other breaking stories, where users might want and need details and updates from the ground.

Initially, I am going to bring our social media experts together, both inside and outside of the newsroom, and work in a collaborative way with them to come up with best practices, tackle some of the tricky questions around these tools, share these best practices across the newsroom . . . (and also  on Twitter @NYT_JenPreston.) The goal is to try and help our journalists figure out the smartest and most effective ways to use social media for reporting and work with them on how they can engage with users  on these sites (in the same way a good beat reporter gets to know as many people as possible on his or her beat, both experts and  people with something to say). When we talk about social media here, it is not just Twitter, of course. I am referring to Times People, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube,  Delicious bookmarks, Digg, Tumblr, among others.

t/s: I’ve started following several Times writers and editors on Twitter. I see a mixture of stream-of-consciousness observations (carr2n, jenny8lee) announce-and-discuss of upcoming stories (NYT_TimObrien), avid reporting/sourcing (stelter) and scattershot experimentation (andrewrsorkin). And of course, each of those cited breaks these too-neat categorizations on a regular basis. Then there are the slew of official feeds. Is there a way to codify what Times staff tweets?

Preston: As you noted, our staff members are experimenting  with these sites in multiple ways. That is not a bad thing. That’s a good thing. No one writes or tells a story in the exact same way. At the same time, we have standards and ethics guidelines, and we expect our journalists to uphold  them when they are speaking on the radio,  writing a story for the Web or in print, appearing on a television program, or sharing  online.

t/s: Is this intense fracturing of the Times’ product a good thing in the long run, or merely inevitable? Can the Times deliver readers a fractured version of itself, allow individual personalities to speak with the Times imprimatur, and still control the quality of the product?

Preston: Our columnists and may of our journalists have always had distinct voices with their respective audiences and this is merely an extension of that. I think this adds to the quality of our news report. And, as I noted above, we have ethics guidelines and standards that everyone knows they are supposed to abide by, whatever platform they are using. Craig Whitney, our assistant managing  editor for Standards, distributed a memo last fall for our staff members outlining what our journalists need to be mindful of. (memo link to come)

t/s: My route through social networking has pretty much been Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn and now Twitter. If history is any guidepost, Twitter is not the end of social networking history. Is part of your job to get ahead of the curve and help the Times jump onto new and innovative technologies, so that things like Twitter, or Facebook, Google or Amazon doesn’t catch the organization by surprise, as they have in the past? How much are you working with the Times tech team on your job, vs. the editorial staff?

Preston: We have lots of experts, extremely talented software developers and technologists , and everyone works closely together. Since I am now living, breathing, dreaming (am not kidding) about social media, I hope to be a part of the conversation, particularly where the journalism, the technology and the community intersect.

I  have started working closely  with members of the tech /software development  team, our digital editors and web producers and our  reporters. We are one newsroom now. We  work together as storytellers, and many of the software developers trained as computer scientists work alongside the journalists  and everyone is involved  throughout  the creative process. That is why there has been this explosion of creativity out of this newsroom in the last few years that has produced a remarkable range of multimedia and interactive features on  NYTimes.com.

t/s: Much was made in the blogosphere about Bill Keller’s instructions to not tweet a meeting, after an earlier one ended up heavily covered on Twitter by Times staffers. Twitter could be an instrument of internal turmoil for any large organization, but the Times has additional history of having to report on its own business and industry, which is itself a road fraught with peril. How do you figure out where the line is between reporting internal news and disseminating company secrets via social media?

Preston: My role is to focus on our journalism and how we can improve it using social media and expand it onto social media. Obviously, it is  inappropriate for anyone in any organization to send out company secrets via social media or any other way. We have a  business  reporter, Richard Perez Pena who reports on  The Times company. I do think there is an opportunity, however, for us to share more information with our readers about the process of newsgathering.

We saw some of that with Juliet Macur who used Twitter to provide updates on the Giro, the cycling race in Italy.  Also, in Sports, we have a Twitter feed on the blog, The Rail, about the Belmont.

t/s: The Times ombudsman rather brusquely dismissed Megan McArdle’s critique of Edmund Andrews’ Times Magazine story, primarily, it seemed, due to the fact that the McArdle’s story was posted on a blog. In a way, the story showed you have your work cut out for you. As bloggers, writers and editors like McArdle cross mediums to comment on Times reporting and reporters, will equal weight be given to a blogger vs. a twitterer vs. a print journalist, going forward? That is, can the Times extend its own embrace of social media outward, as well as inward?

Preston: I don’t speak for the ombudsman. I don’t know enough about that piece. My job is to help The Times newsroom embrace  social media.  Personally, I don’t think that it is question about giving equal weight due to the platform or medium.  We now publish on multiple platforms. It is about the quality  of the  content and  the  quality of the journalism, and that is why it is going to be interesting as The Times seeks to extend quality content /quality journalism onto  microblogging platforms  and social media sites, and engage users in the conversation to help make the content and the journalism bettter.

t/s: In your debut tweet you said, about your new position, “More details later.” Care to share them?

Preston: My role was outlined in this memo. That said, it has only been a little more than a week and already I know the role will change and evolve because that is what we need to do during these interesting times.  My first tweet had a question, and  I am still  digesting all the great ideas. We’re discussing some of them already; we’ll implement some of them — and we’ll keep the conversation going.


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