News Gets Social
By Sarah-Jane CollinsApril 11, 2012
We know that social media is changing the news landscape – but how are news organisations responding? And what do they think about the news conversation?
Social media is fundamentally changing how journalists do their jobs.
"It has changed every single step of the process," says Isabelle Oderberg, the Melbourne Herald Sun's social media editor. "It's changed the way we gather news and the way that leads come to us. It's changed the way that we put news out there and it's changed the way we market our news online and encourage people to read our stories."
Oderberg's steered the biggest-selling newspaper in the country through its take-up of social media, and she's counting all the ways it has changed the news.
"It's changed the way we create news communities online and the way that people interact with us. We've had the advent of the citizen journalist helping us do our jobs, which we always love, especially in terms of real-time disaster stories.
"The amount of content that people are throwing our way is staggering and helping us to build the picture and build the story. It's changed every single step of being in a newsroom."
So social media has arrived in the newsroom. And the people who make the news are busy working out the ways to best incorporate it into their existing structures.
It has been coming for some time now. In December 2010 the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance released the second edition of its Future of Journalism report, based on research collected from journalists, academics and industry surveys.
"After a sceptical start among news executives, social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter are gaining increasing acceptance as ways to source stories (44 per cent) and to reach new audiences (52 per cent)," the report found.
At the Herald Sun, Oderberg says almost 100 editorial staff are now active tweeters, and the vast majority are using Facebook as a journalistic tool.
"The journalists have all been introduced to social, and they're all using social in an integrated way in terms of covering their beats and finding leads and finding contacts in their beats," she says.
Oderberg's round is not a traditional one, such as covering courts, politics or health.
"Social's not a beat as such — it's a media. We use it across the board in all different areas and I'm also responsible for… tweeting the news, responding, monitoring the Facebook page, chasing up leads we get through social, monitoring how many clicks through or hits back to the website we get and seeing how we can do better — that kind of thing."
She sees the role of social media as one that works alongside traditional newsgathering, enhancing the depth of information that news organisations are able to produce.
John Bergin, social media and digital news director at Sky News Australia, started out as a digital news producer and took on social media when he saw it emerging as an important journalistic tool.
"[Social media has] really increased the serendipity — the likelihood that you will stumble over a great story — when you've got these reporters, journalists, producers, utilizing the speed of the medium and using it to report," Bergin says.
And there are plenty of examples of that.
In the early hours of May 2, 2011, Osama Bin Laden was killed when US Navy SEALs raided his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Without knowing it, a Pakistani IT consultant living in Abbottabad was reporting on Twitter the attack as it happened in a series of tweets that only made sense once US President Barack Obama had announced the news, hours later.
"Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event)," the first tweet said. Then, a couple of tweets later: "A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt [sic]. I hope its not the start of something nasty." The rest of his tweets, once you know the context, are a fascinating insight into the situation on the ground as one of the world's most wanted men was killed in a precision military operation.
Bin Laden's death, says Oderberg, was one of those times that if you knew what to look for, Twitter was able to tip you off about what was coming.
"Barack Obama called a press conference at a very strange time… and there was a lot of discussion on social about why you would call a press conference at that time and then we had the rumours coming out [from Twitter] saying 'I've heard Osama bin Laden's been killed,' but it wasn't enough to start running the story," she says.
But it was enough to prompt preparations for what the news desk thought might be next.
"We were getting galleries ready, we were doing backgrounds, we were doing timelines, we were getting all that context ready so that when we had something more solid we were able to hit the ground running, as opposed to playing catch-up for the first two hours of the story."
When being first is one of the key criteria in your business, that time to prepare is an invaluable competitive edge.
"Social is a transformational new medium, and in all the ways that it's changing the rest of the world it's also changing newsrooms," Oderberg says.
Sky's Bergin draws on the parliamentary press gallery for his examples of unfolding news best caught through Twitter. He says most journalists would cite the December 2009 leadership spill when Tony Abbott defeated Malcolm Turnbull by one vote, as the moment everyone in politics realised Twitter had arrived. With all eyes on Canberra, people were able to watch the drama unfold, as it happened — on Twitter.
"Now people are saying we're more likely to get a story out there and have people responding to it and fleshing it out if we put it up there on Twitter. And you see a lot of press gallery journalists using Twitter — not just to live tweet Question Time," he says.
In an insular and competitive world like the press gallery, journalists hold their stories close, but more often these days they're throwing them out there on Twitter — and seeing what comes back their way.
ABC journalist Latika Bourke won the Young Journalist of the Year Walkley award for her coverage of the Abbott/Turnbull spill. Working at 3AW at the time, her use of Twitter to report the events was key to her win. Bourke was hired in 2010 by the ABC as their social media reporter.
In a speech at Melbourne's Wheeler Centre in 2010 Bourke described Twitter as her "local pub". And she made the point that the value of a trusted news brand engaging with social media is that people are able to rely on what's being put out.
"I've never been one to believe the internet is the death of traditional media and nor do I believe social media will consume the old ways; when the big stories happen, people turn to the mastheads they trust," she said.
"But what the internet and particularly social media is doing, is creating a new way of journalism where our processes, news judgements and indeed the entire profession is more accessible and accountable than it's ever been. This should not be feared; its benefits are immense."
Still, news organisations have to be very careful to ensure that they don't fall prey to false reports, or false accounts. One of the most popular falsehoods on Twitter is the common celebrity death rumour. The New York Times estimates that happens every day. Or, a Twitter user might start a fake account, that for a short time, news outlets believe is real. Wendi Deng Murdoch was briefly attributed as the owner of a Twitter account at the same time her husband Rupert started one of his own. In that case, Twitter mistakenly verified the Deng account, leading to a lot of egg on faces when the real owner of the account stepped forward to admit it was a hoax. And then, perhaps most dangerously for media outlets there is the risk of a hacker taking over your Twitter feed, which happened to Fox News on July 4, 2011. The hackers tweeted that Barack Obama had been shot and killed. Serious, macabre, wrong, the news went out under the hashtag #obamadead.
But, it isn't just Twitter that can create false reports, and as with every source, journalists need to be careful that what they are picking up is the truth and can be verified.
Bergin agrees you need to exercise caution with Twitter. But what he thinks is so interesting about the medium is how journalists use it to exchange and collect information. He points out that while journalists may be more willing to broadcast some things on Twitter, there's still wariness about too much openness.
"There is an underlying tension between fruitful sharing of the news and wanting to communicate the news first before sharing with a broader audience through traditional media," he says.
"I think that's a really crucial underlying tension that people can't ignore, because the reality of the situation is there are still commercial forces that need to be recognised.
"You are employed by a media outlet and your responsibility first and foremost should always be to that news outlet. I think scoops do still exist, but in terms of hard news as it happens, the sort of information that is put out there [is not the same] as the stories people have diligently attended to for weeks or months."
What's fascinating about the shift to social media, says Bergin, is that for the first time news organisations and the journalists who work for them are getting a comprehensive picture of how the world views them.
"Traditionally journalism has always been [used] to describe society to itself. That's all good and well but [journalists] do it in such a way that they've never really been able to get a glimpse of themselves as a body occupying space, and I think social media allows us to capture a glimpse and get a greater understanding of what happens and how we actually flex as a creature in this place," he says.
"I think that sort of feedback is really valuable and I think people should seek it out."
At Sky, reporters are tweeting from the presenter's chair, they're engaging with their audience with the sort of immediacy that perhaps was once available only on talk-back radio.
Paul Ramadge is the editor-in-chief of Melbourne's broadsheet daily, The Age. Having just appointed the paper's first social media reporter, Ramadge and the management team at Fairfax are gearing up for more changes to better use social media in the newsroom.
Impressed by The Guardian's success with its Facebook reader — which shows readers what Guardian stories their Facebook friends are reading and enables them to read those too, without leaving Facebook — as well as a number of other "open journalism" initiatives that paper is running, Ramadge sees social media as an opportunity to grow the audience and reach of The Age.
"I think the potential to break stories that are richer, more contextual and have more surprises in them is greater when reporters intelligently and over time build a cohort of social media contacts. People who become reliable and can help inform the story," Ramadge says.
"Journalists don't have the best question all of the time and [social media] can help inform your story… I'm certainly encouraging more Age journalists to use social media as a tool to crowd-source in as smart a way as possible."
He says Fairfax is considering a social reader for Facebook like the ones launched last year by the Washington Post and others, which can reach large swathes of young readers and boost traffic to news websites through social network sharing functions.
And Ramadge is obviously keen to lock in to that traffic.
"Organisations like The Age were renowned for being publishers of newspapers with a set footprint… but footprints for the future are actually being redefined very, very quickly, and that's why The Age — already in print, online, on smartphones and iPad — will soon be powerful on social media as well," he says.
The Age is in the midst of integrating its 'traditional' newsroom — full of journalists who file mainly for the daily paper — nto a multimedia newsroom where everyone is expected to work across the paper, online and the iPad.
The biggest problem with that kind of shift is getting the balance right — and making sure that what is being delivered to every platform is hitting the right notes.
From the journalist's perspective, it's also an issue of work intensification. The MEAA Future of Journalism report says in 2010, 50 per cent of journalists felt the quality of news being produced was worsening due to the pressures of the news cycle and the nature of multi-platform work.
In that climate, it might be useful to consider this piece, by American journalist Matt Welch. He argues that asking journalists at legacy media organisations about the current state of the media is like asking the losers of wars to write the history.
"Life looks a hell of a lot different from the perspective of a dinosaur slowly leaking power than it does to a fickle consumer happily gobbling up innovation wherever it shoots up," the article says.
Welch's point is that the internet has breathed new life into news. The way it's reported, who's doing the reporting, how much information is out there — the playing field has changed dramatically. And that's a good thing.
"Consumers are having palpable fun finding, sharing, packaging, supplementing, and dreaming up pieces of editorial content; newsroom veterans are consistently among the most depressed of all modern professionals," Welch writes.
It is clear that social media, and the ability of the everyman to pick up a phone and take pictures, record audio and video, write up what they see in a short sharp bursts of 140 characters and broadcast it, has turned the order of things on its head.
But, for those journalists and editors at the forefront of this sweeping reorganisation — the ones who have reacted by embracing it — that's not a bad thing.
"Social media can be surprising, unexpected. It can be really personal. It can be all of those things about emotions, and it can be bitchy and fun, but what it can't be is ignored. I think the media should be embracing it. Understanding the best aspects of it and understanding how it can enrich journalism," Ramadge says.
More than ever before, mainstream news outlets are looking to social media to find news, to create news and to disseminate news. And in Australia the competition for social media supremacy is just getting started.