Social media editor role is ‘more about an evolution than a contraction’

Is the role of the social media editor really “dead”? Rob Fishman thinks so. In a widely circulated BuzzFeed piece published Wednesday, Fishman argues that newsrooms don’t need social media editors like they used to.

At many news organizations, “social media” has become something of a catch-all, a not especially descriptive term for highly differentiated functions. Editors think about social sharing as they’re assigning stories; writers use social channels to find sources and confirm leads; designers incorporate social media buttons and widgets into site redesigns; tech teams optimize pages for social discovery; and salespeople increasingly sell brands on their sizable social audiences. Each of these might require its own hire or department.

Once the province of a single point man, social media responsibilities are now frequently dispersed across the newsroom.

Fishman, a former social editor, quotes one unnamed editor who told him: “I both agree that the social media editor is dead and I just hired a social media editor.”

Some readers agreed with Fishman’s argument, saying they don’t see the need for one person to be in charge of social media. But others said the role is more nuanced than Fishman makes it out to be.

I’d argue that the role isn’t dead but evolving. As more people turn to social networks to spread and consume news, social media editors have had to become debunking editors by identifying misinformation and stopping the spread of erroneous reports when big news breaks. They’ve had to experiment with new social media tools, train others in the newsroom to use these tools, and develop related social media strategies.

Now that social media efforts have become a shared responsibility in many newsrooms, social media editors have to think more creatively about how they collaborate with other staffers. Moving forward, for instance, we’re likely to see more integration between social and mobile.

That’s already happening, in fact: About an hour after the BuzzFeed story was published, Liz Heron announced on Twitter that The Wall Street Journal is uniting its social media and mobile staffs. Heron, the Journal’s director of social media and engagement, will take on a newly created role — editor of emerging media for The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones. She’ll be responsible for uniting the mobile and social media staffs into one team, with an expanded focus on mobile engagement, multimedia innovation and real-time news.

Social Media Editor Neal Mann will become editor of multimedia innovations, while David Ho will become mobile, tablet and emerging technology editor for The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones.

Reached by phone, Heron said the move reflects the growing overlap between social and mobile.

“There are a couple of good strategic reasons to merge social and mobile,” she said. “The obvious one is the audiences are beginning to overlap quite a bit. A big part of our social traffic comes from mobile devices. We recently launched a responsive site for mobile and we’re seeing tons of traffic come from social to that mobile site. Social media has really revolutionized the way we do journalism in the last few years and mobile is completely on the rise now and will require the same sort of approach, with editors who are very analytical and who aren’t afraid to experiment and try new things, and sometimes fail.”

She quoted her colleague Ho, who has said that “social and mobile go together like peanut butter and chocolate.”

“It’s a great way to think about how complementary they are,” Heron said.

Pulling together the Journal’s mobile and social efforts “will give both of them a higher profile” in the newsroom, Heron added. She said she expects other legacy newsrooms to adopt similar approaches, and pointed to Circa and Breaking News as examples of sites that do a good job integrating their mobile and social efforts. (Circa hired Reuters Social Media Editor Anthony De Rosa as its editor-in-chief earlier this week.)

Heron, a former New York Times social media editor, doesn’t think the changes in mobile and social have eliminated the need for social media editors.

“I think it’s a very interesting and provocative piece but I disagree with the premise,” Heron said of Fishman’s BuzzFeed story. “In places like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, the role is definitely not dead.”

She noted that the role is expanding to include broader digital responsibilities related to video and mobile, and that at its core the role is about “thinking strategically and pushing the newsrooms out of their comfort zones. … It’s much more about an evolution than a contraction at this point.”

Here’s how some journalists have reacted to Fishman’s piece:


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  • Mario Tedeschini-Lalli

    …”peanut butter and chocolate”? Speaking of cultural gaps: you would never get away with an example like that outside the US ;-)