There may still be some mainstream media journalists out there who don’t see the value of social media, but Steve Buttry of Digital First Media is not one of them.
Buttry consistently writes in a level-headed, well-informed way about the ways journalism can transform itself and flourish in the digital age. The copy desk is a good place to start.
Buttry writes knowingly about how copy editors should learn to work more quickly and develop aggregation skills. He also suggests the copy desk abandon the notion of being a rewrite desk. “Don’t rewrite a clear sentence just because it wasn’t written the way you would have written it,” he advises.
Most importantly for me, he advises copy editors to develop social media skills.
In today’s newsroom, the copy desk can be the strongest swimmer in the social stream of information, which is quickly replacing the news article as the basic unit of journalism.
But before a news organization gets to that point it must decide how it wants play in the social media world.
Let’s set down some basic principles that a good social media policy should have.
1: Social media are good for you. Show me a news organization that is slow to use new techniques, tools and technology to gather and deliver information and I’ll show you, well, U.S. newspapers of 10 years ago, many of which no longer exist. We owe it to our audiences, our shareholders, our bosses, our profession—and history—to use every tool at our disposal to tell the world’s stories.
2: Be serious about social media. Make sure you have a full-time social media director, whatever you call that person, ideally with as large a team as you can afford. If a new process called photography came along, you wouldn’t ask your longtime text news editor to double up as your photo editor. Social media demand a full-time team: journalists who can think like software engineers and app developers, and technology experts of all sorts who can think like journalists.
3: The most important factor is the human factor. News organizations increasingly rely on software to interpret and surface the swiftly moving stream of social commentary on breaking news. No software program or sophisticated algorithm can substitute for a human editor. Make sure your editors understand the technology. One of the best examples of human-algorithm partnership is Reuters Counterparties, edited by Felix Salmon and Ryan McCarthy.
4: Don’t endanger your reputation. Our authority to bear witness to the news depends on our accuracy and integrity. Nothing we do in social media should call those attributes into question. It takes years for a news organization to build trust with its audience. It can take only a second to destroy it with a false, opinionated or misleading tweet or Facebook post.
5. Know the risks of speed. One of the best sites using social media to distribute news is MSNBC’s Breaking News.com, a curatorial platform that uses Twitter to disseminate breaking news from a variety of trusted media partners. At Breaking News.com, editors are told that it’s always OK to stop and take a breath before hitting the “publish” button. As a top editor there once told me, “I’ve never once regretted waiting a minute before publishing. There is no quicker way to discredit your service than by making a horrific error.” (Full disclosure: I served as editor-in-chief at MSNBC.com from 2003 to 2005.)
6: Business is business and personal is personal. While social media are most effective when there is a human touch, don’t confuse your audience. At some news organizations, journalists merely identify themselves by their job titles and roles. At others, there is a mix of professional and personal information (“Jean Doe is economics correspondent for Agence France Press, likes kittens and movies by Wim Wenders…”). Each newsroom needs to decide the mix it’s comfortable with. The distinction between the professional and the private has largely broken down in our connected world. No matter how hard a journalist tries to separate professional and private activity in social media, the public will lump it together. Even if a journalist is using a personal Facebook or Twitter account, he should know that he will be identified as representative of his news organization.
7. Report only what you know or trust completely. The same rules of verification apply to social media as they do to all reporting. On Twitter, you should vet and verify the source and the substance of a post before disseminating it. The common disclaimer “RTs are not endorsements” on a journalist’s Twitter profile can damage both your own trustworthiness and the reputation of your news organization. However, if you’ve developed a consistent level of trust in a source or other news organization, it’s OK to retweet. Just remember it’s your hide on the line if it’s wrong.
8. Be wary of disclaimers. On their Twitter or Facebook profiles, Some journalists offer such disclaimers as “Tweets are my own,” “RTs are not endorsements,” or “Opinions are my own.” I have a problem with that. You’re either professional or you’re not. And the fig leaf that disclaimers offer may not make a difference if you have an aggressive lawyer suing a news organization for libel or media critics charging your reporters or desk editors with bias.
9. Correct your errors quickly and visibly. When an erroneous tweet goes viral, it’s hard to call it back. Develop a smart and practical correction protocol for social media. If errors are tweeted and retweeted, make multiple corrections. Ask your followers to retweet it. And provide your readers context explaining how the error occurred.
10: Be transparent. Once you develop a set of social media guidelines for your editorial team, make them public so your audiences can hold you to account if you don’t live by them.
And a special bonus principle:
Control yourself: A sure way to irritate and lose an audience is to drown them in micro-tweets of information they don’t need. If you feel you must live tweet a news conference or hearing, confine your tweets to the essential.