Is social media killing journalism?

A really interesting discussion arose recently about a memo sent to journalists working on a group of newspapers just outside Detroit of what was expected of them in the age of digital journalism and social media. The memo details an extraordinary list of requirements that is well beyond being achievable or even desirable for most news stories or pieces of content.

However, it is what some are being asked to achieve as their editors and publishers ask for too much, without putting in place the resources needed to make it happen, to the detriment of the most of important thing which is the story.

The memo with its litany of social tasks to be completed is the flip side of journalists doing next to nothing and failing to embrace social media, and using excuses to get out of doing even the most simple of tasks, and as a result failing both themselves and the publication they work for.

The memo, “A Reporter with Today’s Tools Should Use Them” was intended as a helpful guide. Writing in the Detroit Metro Times, the city’s largest weekly newspaper, columnist Jack Lessenberry, described memo as “the single most stunning example I’ve ever seen of what is wrong with print journalism today”.

That is, perhaps, a little over the top, but he has a real point as he walks through what the memo asks of staff.

It is worth noting that the memo was written by a hard pressed female managing editor, Michelle Rogers, who clearly gets and understands social media very well and is clearly under pressure to achieve high results in what Lessenberry pretty much describes as a group of newspapers that sound not unlike content farms, churning out words.

“Unfortunately, she [writer of the memo] now works for a division of the Journal-Register Company, which is to journalism what a Soviet slave labor camp was to the union movement. In the process, she seems to have lost sight completely of what journalism is supposed to be.”

“Her company is aggressively promoting the ‘digital future” of journalism, whatever that means. She has completely bought into the idea, and has trouble understanding why her staff hasn’t.”

Rogers is clearly working very hard and on her own blog she details what she does in her week before listing what she expects of reporters:

“Most of my 60-hour work week is spent editing copy, posting articles and photos online, assigning stories to staff and freelancers, engaging the audience on behalf of our publications via social media, keeping abreast of issues going on across the county, checking out new technology, processing press releases and reader-generated content, and administrative tasks such as tracking website traffic, managing my email account, which brings in about 300 messages a day, reviewing and submitting payroll, employee reviews and processing stringer invoices.”

That’s clearly a lot, but increasingly in this age of shrinking editorial teams not at all unusual.

Then you read what Rogers thinks reporters should be doing when cover a story and you can see at a glance that it is beyond unachievable or even reasonable:

While I try to promote and model the approach that I would like my reporting staff to take in today’s world, with social media and new technology at their disposal, part of me is torn in understanding why it’s not being done completely the way I ask.

On one hand, I think, “It’s so much less cumbersome and a lot more fun to report the story today and do it a more engaging and meaningful way, so why aren’t they all doing it?” But, on the other hand, I think, “Well, I am not in the trenches, so who am I to ask?”

And this is what I would ask:

• Did you crowdsource this topic so you could ask more relevant questions of local officials?

• Did you upload the City Council’s agenda to our website using before the meeting and share it on social media so that readers would know that city leaders were considering raising their own salaries despite a general fund deficit?

• Did you “check in” to the meeting on social media and then tweet and post on Facebook some of the discussion points during the meeting?

• Did you shoot video of local residents during the meeting protesting the decision, process it during the meeting, and post it on our website before the meeting ended?

• Did you post a paragraph on our website under Breaking News about the vote during the meeting and then write the full story after, post it online, and then push it out using social media, SMS text, or our breaking news alert via our e-newsletter subscriber list?

• Did you follow up on the issue by hosting a live chat the next day with local leaders and residents?

Who has time for any of that? Don’t get me wrong social media is central to journalism and media today and I wish people did more rather than made excuses about hard pressed they are, that they are too busy to tweet, comment or blog when so often much of this activity takes minutes. More to the point it usually less than the time it took them to send an email explaining that they don’t have time.

However, what you have to do is get the levels right and it has to be in proportion to what a story deserves in terms of social media support.

If you are spending more time social promoting or enhancing a story than you are on actual stories then you know something is wrong.  Reporters on local newspapers have to cover multiple events each week and often several a day, which is a point one of the responses to Rogers’ blog post queries:

“If you are going to devote this much time and expertise to one story, how are you going to cover the dozens of other stories that have the audacity to occur on the same day? Your method seems perfect for a small town or an encyclopedia. But in a metropolis where we have cartel invasions, business turns, transportation woes, school challenges, sports mishaps, massive conventions, political storms, fires, floods, etc., not to mention good news such as in-depth personality stories, it would be unwise to spend that much time bowing to electronic gadgetry”.

Some stories requite a bigger response in terms of digital journalism than others, but the average run of the mill story whether it is on a local, national or business title does not require a social media blitzkrieg. There’s no time and no need.

In her defence Rogers posted back and said that “everything I have described can be done very easily with an iPhone and Netbook”.

She says she’s done it herself with a Twitter app, ipadio app (for audio), Facebook app, and then shortcuts to video upload page and capzles or dipity, and storify.

And she does say that what she describes is not something you would do for every story, but “in the scenario I’ve presented, it can be done easily”.

Maybe, but Lessenbury argues in his column that “what is most ironic is that by driving their reporters to do this nonsense, editors like Rogers are helping put their own papers out of business. He supports his argument with another comment on Rogers’ blog post from a blog reader called Martha who asks as sensible enough question:

“I still don’t understand why anyone spends money on a paper copy of a newspaper if they’ve got it all free on social media?”

If local newspapers really are giving away all of that, and remember these are small town publications that aren’t going to be implementing a paywall, you have to wonder how long they will actually be around.

They are in many cases dying fast enough without asking for too much from journalists and not getting the digital balance right.

As the other issue is that not only is it time consuming to create a lot of this it can also be time consuming for readers to consume.

What is also true that this is all still a learning curve and  many journalists, both new and not so new, have a hard time getting to grips with this and taking the blinkers off.

Some aren’t all that keen to change the way they do things or don’t want to do anymore than they already do.

The key thing to remember and to aim for is the simple stuff as this takes little time, but can often have the highest return.

1. Be active on Twitter and make an effort to find people useful to follow.

2. Take time every now and then to build Twitter lists.

3. Tweet all of your stories and try to add something to it. Headlines are often too short and not very revealing. It is the value we add that makes the difference.

4. Post the odd stories in groups your organisation might run on LinkedIn and Google+. These often generate comments, leads and draw out people who are worth connecting with.

5. Blogs are a great place to post short form content that isn’t news. Not everything is news and not everything requires lots of words. Often a picture or a piece of video can be posted as blog with very few words at all, but will drive traffic and attract readers as well as something that has 300 words and took far longer to create.

6. Journalists are now aggregators and aggregation can be a powerful way to create content. Sometimes journalists might see a great piece of opinion that is worth bringing to the attention of their readers. A link and a few paragraphs at the simplest level can be all that takes.

7. Tools like Storify, Storiful are useful to quickly collate tweets and help build stories or to be stories in themselves without having to retype a lot of tweets as we all know Twitter makes for good stories as well as helping to promote them.

Obviously my take is that social media enhances and that its arrival has made journalism more interesting both for readers and journalist a like, but despite what everyone says not everyone is there yet.

  • Matt

    Very relevant post, albeit not the easiest to read. It will be interesting, over the next three years or so, to see what happens to print newspapers and where these journalists’ wages will actually come from.

  • Chris Norton

    I feel like this could have been argued 4 years ago – the answer is yes.

    I changed my blog name to Dead Dinosaur because traditional media is having to adapt or die.

    Good writers and journalists will always prevail as we want to read well written copy and interesting stories but the newspapers have to adapt their business models to make sure they survive.

    I suppose a good question would be why is the Wall now all online? And then you have the answer because it works.

    I read it but I also used to read Revolution because it was brilliant. The trouble is stories are so instant and break that tomorrow can sometimes be too late.

  • Sheli

    At the magazine I work for I sometimes wonder how often we should be tweeting our own stories, retweeting stories posted by other staff members and so on. On the one hand it’s a quick and effective way to share content. On the other hand, I don’t want to be constantly broadcasting. I want to actually engage with others and share other interesting content too.

    Plus, as you say, it’s a serious commitment to investing precious time. It’s not easy to focus on writing and editing with tweets popping up every second. My colleagues and I all find social media valuable and we all use it in form or another throughout the day. But sometimes you need to switch off all the alerts to focus on getting the job done. There is a constant temptation to find out what others are talking about, or see whether others agree with your most recent analysis piece. You also don’t want to seem out of it if you don’t respond to people just because you have switched off TweetDeck for half an hour. But sometimes it’s necessary.

    A question of balance, undoubtedly. But it’s a tricky balance to get right. It will be interesting to see how the journalist role develops over the coming years.

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  • George Nimeh

    It’s hard to believe that we’re (still) having this debate in 2011.

    The most pathetic/naive part of Jack Lessenberry’s response is that he says that the memo is “the single most stunning example I’ve ever seen of what is wrong with print journalism today” … Print journalism. Print journalism?? Print jounalism?!? Has he been trapped in 1955 with Doc Brown and Marty McFly? Did he just step out of the DeLorean?

    I just visited the Guardian offices, and one of the things that stood out was how they treat content as just that: content. Text, photos, video, live blogs, tweets shares, check-ins, etc. It’s all part of the puzzle, and implementing their “Digital First” strategy is proof that they’re willing to walk the talk. Quality journalism trumps all, and the sooner that dinosaurs like Lessenberry either get with it or get out of the way, the better.

    It’s not social media that’s killing journalism. It’s people like Jack Lessenberry.


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  • YAShuaib

    A very interesting article that to some extent repeats the same arguement on the significance of social media for journalism. i doubt if we should be talking of print journalism today when everything is digitalized through the online platforms.

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  • HRus

    I don’t think that social media is killing journalism – The other wat arrond!

    By using social media and blogs platforms a small news-company like can get to more readers and save on print.

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