Thu, 08/17/2017 - 05:42

Posted by Belinda Alzner on October 02, 2012


What is the role of a social media editor inside a news organization? New research by University of King’s College online journalism professor Tim Currie sheds some light on the level of integration that social media editors have in their respective newsrooms, the unique challenges that face them and how they position themselves with their audiences.

By Tim Currie


When The New York Times’ Jennifer Preston stepped down from her social media editor position in 2010, she advocated devolving her responsibilities across the newsroom. In response, The Guardian’s Meg Pickard envisioned the position — still new – ultimately becoming obsolete.

Social media editors have been around for about four years. However, they are still finding their place in the newsroom, having taken on a diverse range of tasks that evolved informally from a “series of bottom–up experiments” with Twitter and Facebook.

The Globe and Mail appointed a communities editor in late 2008. The BBC made its first social media editor appointment in 2009. There are now at least 140 social media editors in the United States, although their job titles are as likely to include the words “manager” or “producer” in conjunction with “community.”

Online journalists have generally integrated into the newsroom slowly. Website editors in the 1990s could be seen isolated in a corner of the newsroom, on a different floor or in a different building entirely. Even in the mid-2000s, news organizations were still addressing the “robust debate" about the place of online editors in newsroom structures.

What is the experience of social media editors today — particularly in Canadian newsrooms? My research paper “Social Media Editors in The Newsroom: A Survey of Roles and Functions” aimed to shed some light.

The research was conducted in the summer of 2011 and presented in August. It pre-dated the lively debate in July over whether social media managers should be under 25. It also occurred before then-Huffington Post social media editor Mandy Jenkins lamented that she was perceived in the newsroom as being a “Twitter monkey,” not a real journalist.

The project aimed to determine what Canadian social media editors do and how they see themselves in the newsroom. It involved telephone interviews with 13 social media editors at medium and large Canadian news organizations that included traditional and new media outlets.

In the paper’s findings, the Canadian social media editors surveyed:

  • Have risen through established journalism ranks to their positions

    One would expect that many of the editors would be young — and they were. But they arrived at their positions with more than just a university journalism degree and some social media savvy. Most were in their late 20s or early 30s, and the majority had two to four years experience under their belts doing general reporting or editing at a major news organization. Another smaller group was significantly older — in their 40s and had considerable experience in journalism.
  • Are integrated into traditional newsroom structures but feel outside newsroom culture

    A majority of the participants described their desks as being near the centre of the newsroom with easy access to colleagues. They regularly attended story meetings and had a visible presence in the newsroom.

    However, participants described their roles using terms such as “ambassador” or “evangelizer,” conveying the idea that they were emissaries or missionaries doing work in a foreign culture. A persistent thread in many responses was that they were bringing new ideas to a resistant population. Almost unanimously, they stated their biggest challenge was dealing with colleagues: “teaching old dogs new tricks,” “getting people on board” and “trying to change mindsets.” One said flatly: “old people!”
  • Place a high value on building conversations with the audience but spend much of their time training colleagues & devising strategy

    Asked to relate their goals, a majority of participants mentioned building trust and fostering discussion. One wanted her news outlet to be “something trusted and familiar, and also friendly and receptive.” Another envisioned his news organization as “a playground where the community can share stories and build on news stories themselves.” Asked to define success in their position, the participants provided more diverse answers. A strong minority cited traffic data in terms such as “hard numbers” and “a ton of readers.” Others cited less tangible factors such as intelligent conversation and “people’s reactions.”

    However, internally focused tasks dominated participants’ discussion of what they did on a daily basis. One participant described her daily tasks as “a bucket of editorial, a bucket of training and a bucket of product development and strategy” — a theme reflected in the comments of others. Almost all cited training and supporting colleagues as a major part of their job: conducting instructional sessions and lunch-and-learns, writing how-to guides and answering questions. Many mentioned strategizing — determining “where we want to go in the future” and “finding a better way to offer community tools.” As one would expect, participants also mentioned prominently interacting with the audience — using phrases such as “getting more discussion,” “responding to comments” and “attempting to build a conversation.”

    (The paper lists tasks and social network tools identified by respondents in their work.)
  • See their role as opening their organization to the audience

    The participants referred in different ways to their role as breaking down barriers with the audience. One participant referred to herself as a “reader champion.” Another saw herself as an advocate for audience interests in the newsroom, stating, “We do our darnedest to make sure we’re the people at the table who are saying, ‘Actually, *this* is what people are discussing.’”

    A strong minority stressed their aim was to inject personality and an element of fun into the organization’s image. Two participants said they wanted the audience to know there was a “real person” behind the organization’s social media accounts. Another said, “people want to engage playfully and not terribly seriously” — and it was her job to facilitate that.

In all, the study paints a picture of Canadian social media editors who were highly integrated into the editorial workflow of the newsroom. They envisioned a greater partnership with the audience but, at the time, struggled to fully realize it.

This research was presented in mid-August at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s annual conference in Chicago. It was the winner of the American Copy Editors Society’s inaugural Award for Research on Editing.

Tim Currie teaches online journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. He is co-editor of The New Journalist: Roles, Skills, and Critical Thinking (2010).

J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.