Analysis - by on Thursday, July 9, 2009 12:23 - 3 Comments

Using social media is a key to understanding it

Mashable has a piece today noting that the new social media editor at The New York Times doesn’t appear to be very active on social media.

We think the answer to their question is clear as day. Yes, of course a social media editor should be all over social media.

News orgs should have social media phenoms as their social media editors. Someone who eats, sleeps and breaths social media. A journalist who can’t get enough of it and understands how social media can improve journalism.

Now, maybe @NYT_JenPreston will become that phenom, but she has already called her role “more internal,” meaning that she doesn’t plan on being more active on networks like Twitter, at least for the time being. I can’t imagine how someone who isn’t actively engaging in social media can direct others, especially on what’s next.

Certainly, you can listen to what others are saying, read sites like BeatBlogging.Org and grok what is and isn’t working on social media. Being an avid social media user, however,  is probably the only way to innovate and see what’s next.

There are some very talent social media editors at traditional news organizations: Robert Quigley and Andrew Nystrom come to mind. Both are dedicated social media employees who were into social media before they got jobs in social media, not after. By being active and passionate social media users, I think they are well positioned to see what’s next and how to make their news orgs’ use of social media better than the rest.

We certainly wish Ms. Preston the best of luck at the Times and hope she does a wonderful job in her role. We do think she has a point about listening, and many so-called social media experts would benefit from more listening. By listening, she’ll certainly be able to understand what others are doing and why they are doing it. In the end, however, we think being active on social media (and loving every second of it) is a key part of being a social media editor.

I do a lot of listening and researching for BeatBlogging.Org, but many of my best lessons were learned from doing (and sometimes falling flat on my face). I’ve been a Twitter use since 2007 and how I tweet and why I tweet has changed considerably since I first started. I’m always learning new lessons by both listening and doing.

Social media is one of those things that is hard to fully understand and appreciate without getting your hands dirty. It is, in many ways, quite similar to blogging. Most people don’t fully understand the power of blogging until they do it. But for most bloggers (and social media users) there is that ah-ha moment, and I’m not sure if that ah-ha moment can come from just listening and researching.

I think what has been most important for me in my social media research and use has been my enjoyment of social media. Most successful people on social media (outside of celebrities) are successful because they genuinely enjoy being on social media and interacting with people. I don’t mind following both my personal account @jiconoclast and tracking what people are saying to @MsBeat, because I genuinely enjoy my time on Twitter.

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  • Paul Balcerak

    For some organizations, certain social networks just don’t work for them. I could buy that as an argument if the social network in question wasn’t Twitter and the organization in question wasn’t the New York Times. You’ve gotta be where your audience is.

    I’ll second your sentiment that “many of my best lessons were learned from doing (and sometimes falling flat on my face)”—(shameless self-plug coming): Go look at some of my early blog posts and tell me they’re not brain dead. But I also corrected myself when necessary and probably came out better for having taken my lumps.

    I don’t know, maybe the New York Times just doesn’t like the thought of looking amateurish and wants to study up before jumping into the deep end.

  • Gina Chen

    Agree with Patrick — the social media editor at NYT (or any paper) should be the social media junkie, the person who was into it before he or she got the job. I think one of the problems is newspapers in general don’t give out assignments based on a person’s interests per se.

    Assignments are often (too often in my opinion) doled out based on many political reasons or because the person was due for a promotion or because the person is most free or the person always does a good job with new things or because the person isn’t doing a good job in a current position or because the person is trusted to “not go too far” with this wacky stuff. Be clear: I’m not saying that’s the case with Jen Preston because I have no way to know why she got the job. I’m talking in general.

    What I’m saying is I think it’s somewhat foreign to newspaper culture to assign the person who just innately loves something to that job. It’s not that newspapers want to be mean; it’s just the profession prides itself on its “jack-of-all-trades” mentality where anybody can cover anything. Beats, for example, aren’t necessarily assigned on interest initially, although sometimes this happens with more senior folks.

    The person who innately loves social media and uses it and gets it probably isn’t high enough on the newspaper hierarchy to get the “social media editor” job, so it goes to someone above that person who might not get social media or may not even want the job. Or the newspaper may create the position and fill it without letting the staff know that this new social media editor job is available, so the social media junkie who’d be really good at it has no chance to apply or show how good he or she would be at it. (I’d guess that many doing the decision-making level don’t have always have a handle on who really gets social media in their newsroom.)

    I’m sorry if this sounds like I’m bashing newspapers. I don’t mean to. I’m sure this kind of thing happens in many fields. But I think it’s a shame when it applies to newspapers because I believe social media can really help the news media.

  • Patrick Thornton


    It’s hard to quite understand what’s going on at the Times. I have a few theories, but I’ll leave those for another time. They have handled their social media strategy in a very curious manner. I would think the key to be being a good social media editor is to have a lot of experience and be willing to experiment.


    I think you’ve nailed part of newspaper culture. Newspapers don’t have many experts, and people often work on beats that they aren’t really passionate about. That has to stop. People are starting up beatblogs all the time, and when someone starts a beatblog, it’s because he really loves that beat.

    Hard to compete with that.

    On the same token, news orgs need people who really love and get social media.

About was a grant-funded journalism project that studied how journalists used social media and other Web tools to improve beat reporting. It ran for about two years, ending in the fall of 2009.

New content is occasionally produced here by the this project's former editor Patrick Thornton. The site is still up and will remain so because many journalists and professors still use and link to the content. offers a fascinating glimpse into the former stages of journalism and social media. Today it's expected that journalists and journalism organization use social media, but just a few years ago that wasn't the case.

About the Author of this post
Patrick Thornton is the editor and lead writer of BeatBlogging.Org. He is @pwthornton on Twitter.