Earlier this week, New York Times Social Media Editor Jennifer Preston tweeted that she would be returning to reporting full-time. The news made me wonder: What would this mean for social media at the Times?

Preston told me by phone that the Times plans to eliminate her position in early 2011 and shift social media responsibilities to Aron Pilhofer's interactive news team. When her current job ends, Preston will begin covering social media as a Times reporter.

The move is part of the Times' efforts to more fully integrate its print and digital operations. It's also an acknowledgment that social media needs to be -- and is already -- a shared responsibility.

"Social media can't belong to one person; it needs to be part of everyone's job," Preston said. "It has to be integrated into the existing editorial process and production process. I'm convinced that's the only way we're going to crack the engagement nut."

Preston expressed these sentiments in a memo to News Managing Editor Jill Abramson last August and made the case that the job of a social media evangelist was no longer needed. She said she believed that Times' reporters and editors really understood the value of social media for reporting, delivering real-time news updates and engaging with users.

Helping journalists effectively use social media

When Preston became social media editor a year and a half ago, she was criticized for not having a background in it. It helped, she said, to have a small group of Times journalists who were already well-versed in Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites.

While some journalists at the Times were already using those sites, there wasn't a newsroom-wide understanding of why the tools mattered. "At the beginning there was some resistance among my colleagues about using these tools," Preston said. "What did I hear at the very beginning? 'Twitter is all about what people are having for lunch.' Now, no one says that anymore."

As social media editor, Preston met regularly with section editors and reporters to demonstrate how they could use social media tools not just to promote content but to build communities and attract new audiences. Now, Times staffers regularly use social media to publish real-time news and updates for breaking stories and live events. Some departments, she said, have started using Facebook to help seed communities around areas of content.

Preston pointed to two projects that were especially critical in helping the Times realize social media's potential. In her memo to Abramson, she said the Times' Moment in Time interactive showed those in the newsroom how social media can be used as a powerful crowdsourcing tool. And the Fort Hood shootings showed the Times the value in using Twitter to get information from people at the scene of a breaking news story.

Transforming role of social media editors

Hiring a social media editor is an important first step for newsrooms, Preston said. But she sees the social media editor as more of a temporary role than a permanent one. It becomes less necessary, she said, once more people in the newsroom start regularly using social media.

It wasn't until 2009 that more newsrooms started hiring social media editors. NPR, the Associated Press and TBD have all created jobs related to social media, and just this week USA Today named a social media editor and a social media analyst.

As newsrooms create new jobs, it makes sense that they would regularly evaluate their effectiveness and reshape them as needed. Preston's experience suggests that sometimes the elimination of a new journalism job isn't so much an indication of failure as it is a reflection of success and the need for change. The Guardian's Meg Pickard argued earlier this week that if successful, social media editors will become obsolete.

One of Preston's successes has been getting The New York Times staffers to a point where they don't need to be reminded to use social media. Maintaining this momentum will be important moving forward.

"For us to really, truly sustain and scale the use of the social media tools," Preston said, "we need to have our desk and department heads and section editors owning the social media channels and managing the conversation that's taking place."

The future role of social media at the Times

Pilhofer's 10-person interactive news team will continue to do some evangelizing and offer social media training to staffers as needed. Perhaps most importantly, they'll create new tools to make it easier to integrate social media into the production process.

The team, for instance, could build a tool for editors or reporters to filter through a flow of tweets to find sources.

"Part of the advantage is that if there's a tool that we don't have or we don't need or doesn't exist, we'll simply build it," Pilhofer said by phone. "This is something that we're uniquely positioned to do. We can make the business case for these projects and say, 'Here's why this is important and here's why it's an editorial priority.' "

Preston will continue to help advance the Times' understanding of social media, but mostly in the form of reporting. Having been an editor at the Times for the past 10 years, she's ready to start writing again.

"With all the exciting things happening around this integration, it just seemed like a really good moment for me to go back to my dream job," said Preston, who is especially interested in covering the intersection of social media and politics. "I've loved every job I've had as an editor, but it's hard to beat being a reporter, especially today with all the cool tools available."