It’s not often that a journalist gets to design his own job description, but, with the ever-evolving landscape of online media, some journalists are not only defining their own job descriptions but they are also redefining what it means to be a journalist.
Andrew Nystrom of The Los Angeles Times has assumed a new role — one which he essentially created based on the Times’s need for it. Nystrom’s title is now Senior Producer of Social and Emerging Media.
“It is a new role,” Nystrom said. “There’s never been anyone at the Times before who’s been dedicated to social media.”
As a result, Nystrom is spearheading projects that utilize the Internet’s unique capability to engage with the Times’ readers.
The most developed social media outlet at the Times is blogging. Nystrom says that most journalists at the Times are enthusiastic about the blogs.
“I think we have forty-something blogs right now, and there’s people constantly asking for more, and they want their own blog,” he said.
Nystrom observes that the solo blogger format is not always the most efficient.
“We’ve actually scaled back the number of blogs and gotten more of a group blog format by topic,” he said. “We find that works better in a lot of cases to keep more fresh updates and not have to have people feel the burden that they have to blog daily.”
The Times also uses Twitter to interact more directly with readers. Nystrom said the paper began using Twitter in 2007 as a way to provide quick updates from reporters in the field during the wildfires in Southern California. The Times now has over eighty Twitter feeds that are constantly customized to accommodate reader feedback.
For example the content of the sports feed reflects the Times’s acquired knowledge that, on the whole, Los Angeles readers “just want to hear about the Lakers and Dodgers and don’t really care about football.” The near-instant feedback that the Internet allows for readers has shaped the information that the Times offers.
The information delivery methods that readers use also affect the way the content is presented.
“I think with the convergence of all these social media…people online can sort of curate their own news feed and have that delivered how they want it,” he said.
He mentions tools like mobile applications, texting, daily digests, ticker feeds, RSS feeds and third-party desktop applications and explained: “News readers, if they’re comfortable with the technology, can customize how they get their news and what format they digest it in.” With readers able to filter the news for themselves, the Times must offer the information in a myriad of forms. Nystrom said his role is “to continually stay abreast of the technology, what readers want, and what reporters and editors want and to experiment with new news delivery systems.”
Sometimes, Nystrom must spread the gospel, so to speak, of the ways in which new media can assist reporters.
He said he has to evangelize and talk to people — particularly to journalists who have not yet realized the potential of tools like Facebook and Twitter to interact with readers and to gather reporting tips.
“Somebody would say, ‘well I’m already on Facebook, why do I also need to be doing text? Or, what use is Twitter,'” he said.
In such cases, Nystrom says his job is “to get social media tools into the hands of more reporters.” Additionally, he suggests that a journalist’s responsibility is not necessarily to function on the “bleeding edge” of technology, but rather to use already-existing technology to better cover ones beat.
One way in which the Times has employed social media technology already in existence is through the L.A. Mapping Project. The project is an interactive map, the goal of which is to clarify the boundary lines of neighborhoods in L.A. Beginning with information gathered during the 2000 census, the Times offered an online draft of proposed neighborhood boundaries and then opened the site up to readers for comments.
Readers can also re-draw boundary lines to create their own maps according to what they think is accurate. Through this project, Nystrom says, the Times is “creating a community and civic resource that will be ongoing.”
He adds,”but we could never do that before by just publishing a flat map in the paper.” Eventually, the map will be licensed under Creative Commons for non-commercial, share-alike purposes; it will be served in a KML format that works with Google Earth. Just as importantly, the map will be an internal resource for the Times so that the neighborhoods referenced in the newsroom are clearly delineated.
Nystrom believes that the integration of social media into newsroom enhances reporting; ultimately, however, the driving principles behind the practice of journalism are the same.
“We really want to give people the same information that we’ve given them since 1881 every day,” he said, “but in whatever format that’s going to get us the broadest audience and is convenient for them as well.”