Time to Elevate our Social Media Strategy in Journalism Education

ORLANDO– Three social media sessions in TWO Weeks’ time– an indication of just how important things like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and LinkedIn are to the world of journalism in 2010.

I’m finding myself  knee-deep in social media teaching ideas as I reflect on what was learned at two academic conferences and one professional gathering.

At this year’s Society of Professional Journalists Southeastern Regional Conference here at University of Central Florida Saturday, the wrap-up or closing session was titled “Deploying Social Media.”   It was the OTHER book end to a day that for many of the conference attendees began with “Courage Amid Chaos.”

Etan talks during morning session
Etan Horowitz, digital media producer at CNN International, shares his career path with a standing-room only crowd at the SPJ Southeastern Regional Conference at University of Central Florida.

Both of these sessions were lead by a 28-year-old former technology reporter at The Orlando Sentinel.    I say former because his experience allowed Etan Horowitz to become the social media media coordinator for CNN International.

Horowitz’s experience, as outlined in his final tech column at the Sentinel, is a great case study of how the career path for journalists getting into the profession is changing (or has changed).  The old “farm team” system may not be the way to a rewarding career, particularly if one is planning to work at places where newspapers have traditionally been the core media product.

In my opinion, CNN has been on the leading edge of broadcast journalism’s true embrace of social media.   In my previous blog, almost two years ago, I noted how CNN’s Rick Sanchez had broken ground on true integration of social networking into coverage of the 2008 Presidential campaign.

At that time, Etan Horowitz was pounding the pavement  (Sorry for a very bad cliche) here in Central Florida gathering technology stories and producing a column on tech issues.

Today, he’s the man behind the scenes at CNN International as that worldwide news organization seeks to remain relevant in an age of fragmenting audiences, which include those who live on the social networking Web sites.

As a former full-time television news producer, I could identify most with Etan’s experience as he shared examples of breaking stories where he had a role in lining up social media content to share on what some of us like to call “CNN-I”

Horowitz did what I consider to be THE BEST JOB articulating a strategy for television (and potentially newspaper) Web sites’ use of the interactivity and virtual community-building that distinguishing social media from the traditional (AKA “old”) media prepared FOR an audience.

Time to stop the panic

What I’ve heard at so many conferences like the SPJ gathering is how news reporters and anchors HAVE To be on Facebook and Twitter.  News reporters and editors brag about being on the site.

Only a handful of presentations have gone beyond the “we have to be there because we need that audience” argument.

While this may be true, traditional media practitioners have to move beyond the “do it because our audience is there” argument.     There must be a BETTER reason.

I think many people have been able to see that Facebook and Twitter can be used as a great reporting tool.  Advertising and Public relations practitioners note how these can help in getting the word out about a message, product or event.

What Horowitz did was explain HOW journalists, specifically, can take what is on these social media Web sites and produce BETTER journalism.

His very focused presentation on Saturday gave me a reason for using the sites in my classes.  I was so glad that two of my students were in the room when Horowitz introduced concepts such as crowdsourcing, location-based social networking and crisis mapping.

If you don’t know what these terms mean, stay tuned– we’ll define them as we lay out a strategy for elevating what we teach on social media.

Time to think about what we teach

One week ago at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I joined more than 100 other journalism mass communication educators and graduate student researchers for the AEJMC  (Association for Education in Journalism Mass Communication) Southeast Colloquium.  During that conference, there was a session on the role of social media in our mass communication teaching.

Most of the discussion centered on how we communicate with students who are constantly on these Web sites.

A week before that at the AEJMC Midwinter Conference, one of the last sessions during the weekend of research presentations was an entire panel of emerging research on Twitter and News.

Taking the sum total of  these two sessions plus what I learned from Horowitz, I now have a sophisticated strategy for what students need to know.

An Elevated Strategy looks like…

Horowitz mentioned crowdsourcing– a way of using what we learn from a gathering of people around a certain topic or issue as a place to find interview subjects.   The cluster of users in a social media environment yields a seed for a news story that often is not otherwise known to the journalist.

Crowdsourcing is certainly not anything new.  It’s a much broader term that has been used in business.  Jeff Howe has written about it in WIRED years ago.

But, in the context of a social media strategy, it’s at least one step beyond just being on Twitter or Facebook.

Likewise, examining the tweets (those 140-character micro blogging posts on Twitter) for WHERE they are can yield yet another important detail on the location of a possible story.   Horowitz explained how he used various Web sites to research tweets and get a better handle on the reaction to various news stories.

“The key now with Twitter is the location,” Horowitz said.

How many of us journalism instructors even mention location when we talk about Twitter?    That’s what I mean by “elevating our social media strategy.”

But, it’s not just about crowdsourcing or location-based social networking, we also have to realize that those locations are critical when reporting a crisis such the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

Our charge as journalism educators is to convey how social media mapping tools can elevate a flat, traditional story with an entirely new dimension.

At the end of the day, what we teach about social media — and YES, we MUST TEACH it.   Most of the students, who took up the greatest number of seats here at the SPJ Regional Conference, were unaware of the tools that Horowitz shared.

That means if we educators take these tools introduce them as we teach, our students will be that much better prepared to work in newsrooms that are figuring out how to use social media.

Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

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