EIJ 2011

Hyper-Social Journos Star At News Confab

The most jam-packed sessions at the SPJ/RTDNA conference in New Orleans dealt with how news teams are using Twitter and Facebook to both disseminate news and find scoops for hot stories. Twitter is now akin to an AP wire service, and at least one journo expert considers Twitter followers to be a journalist's most important assets.

It would’ve been outright quaint to ask journalists if they were using Facebook or Twitter at the SPJ/RTDNA conference this week.

Robert Hernandez, an assistant professor of Web journalism at the University of Southern California, asked the more appropriate question of the moment: How many Twitter accounts do you have?

His own five accounts were matched or bested by the throngs of journalists who had packed every inch of a room to hear him speak about real time reporting with social media. One attendee elicited an impressive gasp from the cheek-to-jowl crowd when he trumped the room with 17 accounts.

If there were any anti-social holdouts, one would’ve had a hard time finding them at the New Orleans conference, which unrolled from Sept. 25-27. In fact, the easiest way to spot a panel on social media would be to look for the crowd spilling out from the back of the room.

Inside those rooms, social media discussions had clearly shifted from questions of “if” to “how” and “what’s best.” What apps are you using to harness your Twitter feeds? How are you using geolocation tools like Foursquare? Is it worth folding Tumblr into the mix? Storify? GetGlue? Google Plus?

Reporters swapped tales of scooping their own newsrooms via their Twitter feeds. They groaned at stories of news organizations that still used their Facebook pages simply to dump story links. Among room after room of journalists with faces aglow from the tablets and smartphones in their hands—laptops were comparatively scarce—the social media learning curve had clearly flattened to a small bump.


Instead, much talk shifted to Twitter’s growing power for both news gathering and delivery. “Treat it like your AP wire,” Hernandez said. “This is the river of news flowing.”

With over 200 million users, approximately 20 million of them active, Twitter’s potential for crowdsourcing is being tapped regularly by some of the country’s biggest news outlets.

Victor Hernandez, director of domestic news gathering for CNN/U.S., described it as working “like a tripwire in breaking news,” noting that it has become mandatory for all editorial staffers to monitor it not just on their desktops but on mobile, too.

“We’ve trained and created an approach where it’s everyone’s job,” he said.

Andy Carvin, NPR’s senior strategist for social media, relayed stories from the vanguard of Twitter use. He recounted his tweets about the Arab Spring from his Washington desk in past months as revolution sparked in Tunisia and wound through Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain. Carvin, who has logged some 60,000-plus tweets on the protests and toppling governments since last winter, took on the stature of a rock star among the gathered journalists.

He recalled the unique, bird’s eye perch that Twitter began to afford him as he teased out and geolocated tweeting sources on the ground from Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “I had achieved a form of situational awareness,” he said, noting that he was able to use that Twitter-enabled vantage point to augment NPR’s field reporting from staffers.

Carvin extolled the invaluable, omnipresent source network that Twitter allowed him to tap into. “I basically came to the conclusion that the people who follow you on Twitter are your most important assets,” he said. “You’re cultivating sources and you’re forming relationships with them.”

Not that all of the social media love was being spent on Twitter. Jen Lee Reeves, interactive director for the University of Missouri’s NBC affiliate KOMU Columbia, Mo., and associate professor of journalism at the school, spent much of Carvin’s talk tweeting away across two screens with an open laptop perched on her knees and a smartphone clutched in her hand.

But when it comes to connecting with her own audience, “my market is more Facebook than Twitter,” she said, noting that it was an essential tool in gathering early information about the tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., earlier this spring.

Indeed, Facebook’s journalism program manager, Vadim Lavrusik, drew a capacity crowd of his own. With 800 million monthly active users and 350 million monthly active mobile users, reporters were just as ravenous to stay connected with it despite grumblings over recent changes to its functionality.

Lavrusik was on hand to unveil some new Facebook features with potential value for the newsroom. Chief among them was Timeline, “a sort of digital scrapbook,” he said, that would make it “a lot easier to know if a source is who they say they are on Facebook.”

He also described a new news feed function that brings top and recent stories into a single feed and another opt-in, profile-only feature, Subscribe, which enables users to select how much content they want to receive from a poster. Journalists can use Subscribe to organize their personal and professional postings and see who is reposting them, Lavrusik said.

He also shared some Facebook statistics that yielded a few surprises to those who hold that the social network is all about brevity. One stat revealed that meatier posts were stickier: five line posts brought a 60% increase in engagement, while four lines garnered 30% more engagement.

Less surprisingly, photos resonate on Facebook. Posts with pictures receive 50% more likes than non-photo posts. Posts with thumbnails yield 65% more likes and comments.

And readers also prefer journalistic analysis in their posts. Those that include it get 20% higher referrals.

Social media platforms and organizing tools that have yet to achieve critical mass were also bandied around the conference, albeit more tentatively. Google Plus, which just emerged from its beta version, evoked some interest for its promise to merge Facebook and Twitter functionalities. Storify and Twylah, which turn tweets into narratives, emerged as tools of interest, as did Klout, which measures individuals with a score based on their social media engagement and level of influence (for perspective, Lady Gaga measures a 99 out of a possible 100).

Steve Safran, an editor at Lost Remote, flagged TV-oriented social sites like YapTV and Philo as worth watching for their trendspotting features, reminding a group of network affiliate journalists that some shows—like Fox’s newly-hatched The New Girl—have more currency in social media than their Nielsen numbers would suggest.

But regardless of how willing attendees were to wander into social media’s periphery, they were reminded throughout the conference of some navigational guideposts. USC’s Hernandez spelled out a few.

“Journalism will outlast all of these tech companies,” he said. “You’re lazy if you only use social media and you’re lazy if you don’t use it.”

As for the overeager social mediaphiles or the silent minority hiding among them and still averse, Hernandez said: “We can’t afford to be dogmatic to extremes for technology or against technology.”

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