Confessions of a social media editor

This post first appeared on the IJNet site.

“What does a social media editor do?”

This is exactly what I typed into Google before I started my job at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong as its first-ever social media editor in the summer of 2010.

The search results were not that satisfactory. One of the few well-known social media editors at that time was of course Jennifer Preston of the New York Times.

But things move so fast that three months after I started my job, the Times eliminated its social media editor position.

At least two lessons learned here: the first is that there is not much collective experience available to share and the second is that things change fast (if not too fast) in the social media world. So a social media editor job by definition means non-stop exploring and learning.

Still, as social media editors become more common in newsrooms – in fact, they are now a micro-hiring trend, there are some concrete job tasks, the main three are:

1. Social media strategy planning and execution

There are more platforms than Facebook and Twitter. Instead of following what everyone else is doing, the social media editor needs to consider carefully why and how each platform should be used as a channel for its media organization.

Who is the target audience? What kind of news do they want? What time do they spend on social media? What kind of digital gadgets do they use? All these questions make a difference for decision making.

For countries where Facebook and Twitter dominate, the decision is usually easier to make. But for Asian countries, localization becomes important. If Chinese readers are your target, microblogging service Sina Weibo is hard to miss. Running your news organization’s account on Sina Weibo can be very different from running it on Twitter.

Once platforms are chosen, editing comes in. Some newspapers simply sync their Twitter accounts to their Facebook pages, which might save a lot time, but it does not really serve their social media readers.

On the Post’s Facebook page, I used to put more question-style leads, to engaging readers and generate discussions. Our Twitter account, on the other hand, sent out more straightforward headlines.

2. Community Building

I usually describe the curating and editing part as the “traditional social media” work. While some social media jobs are described as community managers, underlining that engaging the community is part of the job. The community can be within your existing readers/audience, or beyond that. It could be online, or offline.

There are all sorts of new media initiatives that involve the larger community, from the Guardian’s expense investigation experiment, to the New York Times’ hyperlocal site. At the Post, we experimented with an interactive crowdsourced map on environmental destruction in Hong Kong called CitizenMap.

As the project manager behind the initiative, the work involves planning, designing and developing the concept of the site and communicating with developer and designers to turn the concept into product.

It also involves marketing and outreaching to possible partners to build a strong network of people relevant with the cause. Content-wise, editing and engaging readers/users is still a crucial part to ensure the quality of the site. If your organization has a large citizen journalist project like CNN’s iReportsupporting similar initiatives, you are lucky. But in most cases, the social media editor needs to take care of more than just social media or editing.

3. Integrating social media in the newsroom

The social media editor is a newly-created position in many news organizations, so integrating it means both getting the product into the editorial mix and training people.

For print products like newspapers, there are lots of small experiments that can be done — from taking Facebook comments to the printed paper (which was very welcome at the Post), to putting questions on front-page stories and leading people to discuss on social media. Usually the letters or opinion page is a good place to start.

Despite the current thinking that social media is very important in modern journalism, you will be surprised how many journalists and editors are not familiar with social media at all, let alone integrating social media into their daily work. Training people up takes time and effort, but changing the mindset is always more difficult than offering skills.

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