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Why Social Networks Need Journalists

Angelique van Engelen - 2/20/2013

Social networks are beginning to open their eyes to the needs of journalists. This is true for all social networks: a single parenting web site, a raffle for a free cell phone or a yoga mat. (See CareerCabin for more information). Publish2.com began a new trend by being entirely geared up for reporters. This ‘social media company’ is in beta testing, but its founders promise to deliver on a few key features which the currently available social networks like FaceBook, LinkedIn etc. miss out on. One of those promising features is a news aggregator ‘which puts journalists at the center of news’. Who gets to be a part of it depends on the community that Publish2 starts off with. They say on their blog they’ll start off with mainstream journalists and independents, and letting them invite others into the system.

Another interesting venture is Hey! Nielsen. Aside from offering social networking features, it promises to also be an opinion engine (consumers will share opinions on their favorite entertainment) and a buzz tracker that Nielsen will use to generate market research, which a Nielsen spokesperson said won’t be until another year. People that sign up are promised they’ll move from being mere ‘fans’ to ‘insiders’ if they prove authoritative on their entertainer of choice.

Platforms like these find themselves to be launching right in the middle of a very very long, very involved tail which is spinning if not into deeply entrenched then widely branched other long tails. There is no ‘cut and paste’ approach to copy here. It’s trial and error.

Publish2 is specifically setting out to fill a journalist toolkit vacuum on the web that is beginning to be more than an eye sore. Its belated arrival in the social networking scene shows that for all the journalist contact book is worth, its scoop sourcing data simply doesn’t make for great sharing on accessible networks. Social networks’ transparency is a major scare crow for some journalists because your contacts are traceable. “It is going to be risky being friends with a journalist…at least on the public social networks”, says Tom Foremski on ZDNews. He ends his article with the question “Will journalists become social pariahs?” A few of the comments this sparked were ‘then don’t use the ‘social’ network then’, ‘good reason’ and ‘journalists are not above the law’. In other words; 'Serves you right!'

An added complication inhibiting journalist-calibrated social networks is the vast spectrum of tools available to journalists’ audiences to interact with news outlets. Newsrooms are swamped with thousands of potential sources and creating order in the chaos is challenging, especially if sharing the information with competitors remains off limits. So how will the media sector feature in the networked world a few years down the road?

To say that the winners will be those that catch up on the lag in the networking by employing technological tools that help in the fast paced and changing world is hardly meaningful because every organisation’s internal provisions are not accessible. How can you tell what is the best strategy? Individual journalists are making strategic choices every day to face the changes.

Where they turn to is key, because their organizations won’t show the way.

Editors in the most sophisticated of newsrooms are at a loss at how to cope with the basics involved of dealing with the masses of responses that the news they cover generates and deploying new tools for including this in their news coverage. This is why initiatives like Publish2 are going to be shining beacons.

What will be essential is that journalists are going to be provided with web applications. How difficult can it be to create a well balanced social network that is transparent, person rather than topic centered, discrete AND that allows you to rate, track, review etc.?

A person who appears to have taken this all in and who has created his own personal medium is Erick Black, a reporter with over 30 years of experience at the Minnesota Monitor. He’s gone it alone and his website is a model idea of how to effectively combine reporting, interacting with audiences and staying in contact with colleagues. His site is a repository on a par perhaps with an entire crowdsourcing venture. At least Black has proven that crowd clout is equally applicable to a person’s career wisdom than to one passion shared by a hoist of people.

It is specialized topics/domains/people that are most interesting in strategic networking. Social networks that are currently on the market all are beginning to carve out a niche for themselves and that’s pretty much an accessory of spontaneous trending. Josh Porter, who is a writer who brands himself as a social designer, believes http://bokardo.com/archives/sermo-a-sign-of-a-larger-trend-toward-specialized-social-networks/ that diversification will start soon. “The hype of professional networking platforms comprises the journalist trade but there are few media sourced peers to sites like Facebook and MySpace. My hunch is that we’ll see a lot more specialized social networks coming soon. They’ll support a unique activity and user group in ways that generic software can’t, as well as provide the appropriate privacy and membership tools to keep them high quality and relevant.”

It is specialized topics/domains/people that are most interesting in strategic networking that is going to be useful for journalists. Social networks that are currently on the market all are beginning to carve out a niche for themselves and that’s pretty much an accessory of spontaneous trending rather than design. Josh Porter, who is a writer who brands himself as a social designer, believes that diversification will start soon. “The hype of professional networking platforms comprises the journalist trade but there are few media sourced peers to sites like Facebook and MySpace. My hunch is that we’ll see a lot more specialized social networks coming soon. They’ll support a unique activity and user group in ways that generic software can’t, as well as provide the appropriate privacy and membership tools to keep them high quality and relevant.”

Can journalists make up for the lack of tailor made network tools by turning to crowdsourcing? Like Erick Black, many journalists have adopted crowdsourcing tactics by going about it on personal title. However, few are as accomplished as Black, who himself says he’s interacting with an audience he’s largely built by dint of being part of a newspaper. Specialist crowdsourcing platforms themselves offer the most immediate scope for becoming social networks for journalists because this is where crowds of people gather together on an issue by issue basis. You could doubt however that the peer pressure that results in some issues to rise to popularity is necessarily all that democracy inducing. People that set up shop to counter balance this include TheLatest.net, which describes itself as 'a provider of daily news summaries with an independent perspective'. How refreshing.

For the time being, a journalist does best to focus first and foremost on being versatile in working the web. Knowing your tools becomes almost as important as knowing your sources and that is one consequence of an ever encroaching, more connected, virtual world. When you haven’t built enough clout on your own blog or via your own publication to ask audiences straight out questions and want to thrust yourself in the center of the action come what may, you might spend a lot of time searching for clues in bookmarking sites and on crowdsourcing sites. We’ve listed a few tips to save time here.

Working online sources is like adopting trade journalists’ tactics to get at the better stories for your general news outfit. Journalists are masters of using all available means to get the story. It is beyond doubt that this is going to stay a feature of the profession for times to come. But will the journalist fall behind?

One temptation for individual journalists involved in this jungle is to see rearranging your social network as the journalist practice itself. An acquaintance of mine was reviewing one of the top 4 in-demand allied health care careers and turned a lot of it on its head. Your peers seem to be doing it all the time, you won’t want to be left out. What do freelance journalists do who are dependent on generating an income by writing stories? Can they afford to forsake the online networked world? One person who offers decisive answers to this issue is Sree Sreenivasan at Poynter. He offers a sound advice based on examples of direct experience.

As for media organisations’ own participation in social networks – there is no clearity who is pursuing which strategy whatsoever. One way to explain this is that journalists are taught to assume that the domain of the surprising is pretty much their work field and that journalist output (ie papers) reflect what’s going on in society narrowly. But by not being involved in open source based social networks, we’re missing part of the picture, which is almost unique for journalists. Perhaps that explains the loss that so many news organisations are at in dealing with audience participation. We might have been developing a communal blind spot by assuming ourselves to be part of an invisible society that could only be addressed one way. Now that there’s real interaction we find ourselves trying to make out what the hell it is that we’re beginning to make out on the horizon. In other words; this time it’s us that are taken by surprise! That's quite unnerving.

Disclosure: Angelique van Engelen, the author of this article is the founder of www.reporTwitters.com, a platform where journalists can publish/research their articles using Twitter.


Angelique van Engelen is a freelance journalist who is involved in www.reporTwitters.com, a journalistic project that combines reporting with Twitter. She crowdsourced opinions on this issue on this site.

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