Why The New York Times eliminated its social media editor position

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.”

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  • Anonymous

    Great comment, Geri, but it’s important to recognize that the true organizational challenge here goes beyond ensuring merely that employees “understand” the company’s mission, values, and desired image, and embraces the task of motivating employees’ to use social media in a way that reflects those criteria. A policy approach that falls short of addressing that real challenge is ‘feelgood’ one, rather than an effective one.

  • http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/author/seamus-condron.php Seamus Condron

    Well, that will always be something people will be annoyed about. My bigger pet peeve is that they don’t enable comments on articles that appeared in the print version of the paper. It’s been a couple months since I last checked, but this always frustrated me.

  • Anonymous

    I never realized Jennifer Preston’s role emphasized internal evangelizing.

    I thought it was similar to Shirley Brady’s position at BusinessWeek (before the position dissipated in the Bloomberg acquisition), using social media to cultivate a bridge between readership and the publication.

    For what it’s worth, I think such a need still exists.

    Most of the reader enagement that exists today still comes from what I would characterize as the early-adopter crowd.

  • Anonymous

    The New York Times implemented a best-practice that nonprofits have also figured out: Social media works best as an organization-wide tool that brings all departments together as well as all stakeholders. Social media has to be part of everyone’s job, with guidelines. That last word, “guidelines,” is critical. As social media become the public face of organizations, those organizations must make sure that employees understand the mission, values, and persona that the organization wants to project, and that employees know the difference between personal and organizational communication.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pilhofer Aron Pilhofer

    Thanks Robert, and +1 for me too on the need to add a human touch to our Facebook and Twitter accounts. I don’t think you’ll see Col. Tribune-style engagement, but it is one of our big priorities for the coming year. More Tk.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pilhofer Aron Pilhofer

    Hi Charmaine,

    I couldn’t agree more, and that’s precisely what we intend to do. It’s far, far too big a job for one person.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pilhofer Aron Pilhofer

    Hey Cheri,

    FWIW, the social media marketing manager position has existed for years, and has a very different function that has little to do with editorial. So, no connection here at all.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that once reporters and editors learn how to make social media part of their daily work flow, they can begin to look at it not as “another thing” but as a set of tools that help them with their reporting and that keep them in touch with the conversations taking place about the topics they cover and the stories they produce.

    ~Mallary

  • http://twitter.com/socmedia365 Richard Brasser

    I think that this is actually a great sign of the continued maturity of social media. Evangelizing the value and opportunities of social media were critical, however, we are now seeing brands integrate social media strategies across the organization. Social technologies enable dynamic communication in a much more human way. This empowerment should not be walled off in one group or division of a company. It should be the thread that weaves it’s way throughout the organization both internally and externally. As @jowyang prophletized http://bit.ly/euH7PK, the role of the social media strategist has moved from educating and energizing to a high level project initiation and management role. Brands that understand that social media is an integral part of the overall communications ecosystem will win. Social media strategists that can’t mature past evangelizing and offer real sophisticated solutions, will be forgotten.

  • Anonymous

    Remember. also, that this is the same paper that still will not link to outside sites. Even if the piece requires it.I love the NY Times but those little things are lacking. Or that annoying auto-search within the paper that happens when you try and copy a name to do a proper search.

    -G.

  • http://www.johnakerson.com JohnAkerson

    It kind of sounds like “Social Media Directors” really need to act as social media evangelists? or perhaps – Given that Andy Carvin’s timely and perfectly valid point about *jargon shifts* – “Maximizing your the value of your job” evangelists

    I wonder about the whole “if you succeed, you make your job obsolete” thing. In this economy, people are very cautious about doing a job so well that it makes their job unnecessary. It reminds me about the first person stories written by people who were the last workers at the old brick and mortar Circuit City stores.

    If they sold everything in their stores, there was no longer a need to have those employees. Thats not a good incentive to do your best to sell everything off the shelves…

  • Anonymous

    NYT just posted a social media marketing manager position on mediabistro today. Hmmmmm…

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_R7BBEW5IATNY4ESPKPZCTQSZNQ MightyMouth

    Andy, I’ve enjoyed watching you help NPR correspondents become social media savants – you’ve done a great job. Easy to navigate from what I hear to what I see – on my Droid, on my desktop, wherever – and to stay engaged with a story. If this whole NPR thing doesn’t work out, maybe you can teach the Luddites in newsrooms across the globe?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_R7BBEW5IATNY4ESPKPZCTQSZNQ MightyMouth

    The NYT sets another great precedent. Glad to see them recognize that social media is part of the job of a journalist – I hope their example will stop some of the hideous mash-up crap I see from some of the smaller dailies.

    There will be whining from reporters and editors who see social media as “another thing they have to do” – the challenge is learning how to make it part of what you’re already doing. It’s like when typesetting went by the boards, and terminals turned up in newsrooms across the industry. Lots of whinging from those who didn’t want to do things a new way, who then either learned or exited.

    Social media tools make it easy to share content – maybe the NYT can teach the foot-draggers how it’s done?

  • http://compoundmarketinggroup.com Blaine Mathieu

    Right on – this is precisely what “compound marketing” is all about. Social media should not be thought of as a silo (and neither should other online channels). It is only by taking a connected approach that both marketers and publishers (just another form of marketer) can leverage the real power of the online space. For those interested, more on this topic at http://compoundmarketinggroup.com.

  • http://twitter.com/jenmacmillan jenmacmillan

    Andy, I couldn’t agree more – great points all around. It’s tricky to say social media is about a certain number of tools or a static skill-set. The landscape is constantly changing and I’m sure Jennifer Preston will have no shortage of stories to cover in her new role (which sounds like a very exciting gig, congrats).

    In my role at The Globe and Mail, I work with staff across all sections to brainstorm ideas, provide guidance and launch projects (e.g. http://bit.ly/ensTan). It’s exciting and busy, and involves a lot of coordination – but the opportunities and possibilities for what we can do are truly endless.

    Looking forward to seeing what the strengthened NY Times team does next.

    Jennifer MacMillan
    Web 2.0 Editor, The Globe and Mail

    *kidding – it’s Communities Editor :)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/CharmaineSK Charmaine Lim

    In my opinion, NYT should employ social media specialists to handle social media marketing as it involves huge amounts of time and effort.

  • http://busylearners.com Robert Bacal

    Just a general caution. As “traditional” media move to play in the social media space, they’d better have a darned good way of distinguishing themselves from all the other “contributors” in the space, or, quite frankly, they will have no reason to continue to exist.

    if the NYT ever becomes “just another Twitter source” it’s over. And it should be. It’s interesting, and rather sad that journalism now follows, rather than exhibits leadership, and seems to be moving to lowest common denominator distribution of content.

    The bonus is that we will all be able to read NYT tweets (or status updates) right beside the 10 year old’s account of what she had for breakfast.

    Is this the final step in stripping away any “professionalism” from journalism?

    Just some thoughts.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks for letting us know, Molly. Nice to see smaller publications putting an emphasis on social media.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Molly-Jasinski/619856970 Molly Jasinski

    Libby and Mallary,

    I was recently hired as the social media specialist at the Brownsville Herald, which is a mid-sized community newspaper in Texas. It’s not an editor position, per se, but I am the main person in charge of generating social media content.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks, Andy, for sharing your experience. There’s a Facebook discussion taking place now about social media roles. You may find it interesting, if you haven’t already seen it: http://on.fb.me/fHx0RJ

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TBGY2SZC7RDQ5232C2CGVNOFPA David

    In a related story, Fox is eliminating their telephone correspondent

  • http://twitter.com/SaVonniYestanti SaVonni Yestanti

    Great Job! Yes, Social Media is an “everybody” animal! :-)

  • http://twitter.com/acarvin Andy Carvin

    FWIW, NPR has never actually had a social media editor, per se. I was brought on board in 2006 as product manager for online communities – not many were people calling these tools “social media” yet.

    As time passed, the job has evolved. We created a social media desk in 2008, mainly to help train staff how to do their own social media, as well as to develop discrete projects and experiment on different platforms.

    Today, my title is senior strategist, and I spend as much time on the business side of the job as I do on the news side. That new title of mine doesn’t include phrases like “community” “Web 2.0″ or “social media,” because frankly, it’s not worth keeping up with the jargon shifts every few years. So now my role is all about thinking about how we maintain and grow our relationship with public so they can help us fulfill our mission, and the investments we need to make to do that. Essentially, I focus on overall community engagement strategy, both online and offline, while our social media desk manages products like our blogs or the npr.org community, as the shows and desks maintain their own social media presences.

    I think all of us who do this for a living hope we’ll reach a moment in time when we no longer have to teach someone how to @ reply someone on Twitter, or change their profile picture on Facebook. But I’ve been involved professionally in online communities for 16 years and one thing has remained true that entire time – the tools we use and the ways we interact with the public will continue to evolve as long as there are 20-year-old coders eager to innovate and take over the world. So while the notion of a social media editor may come and go, it doesn’t mean news organizations can stop thinking about the future, our communities and how we fit into them.

    Congratulations to Jen for moving back to reporting duty, and mazel tov to Aron as well. I can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.

  • http://twitter.com/robquig Robert Quigley

    Good luck Aron. They definitely put the right person on the case!

  • http://twitter.com/robquig Robert Quigley

    Seamus, that is a great comment. I couldn’t agree more. The tools are important, but the human touch is what makes it go. I still think the NYT should engage with its main Twitter account and Facebook page. It could be great, especially with the audience they have.

    I don’t see the role of social media editor going away at the Statesman anytime soon (and not just because that’s *my* job). We need to stay ahead of the curve and find new ways to engage with our audience. Having someone dedicated to that keeps us on point.

    - Robert Quigley
    Social media editor
    Austin American-Statesman

  • http://twitter.com/pilhofer Aron Pilhofer

    Thank you Mallary for the wonderful piece. I am really excited about taking on these new responsibilities. But just to respond to a couple of questions raised by commenters (Seamus and others), I think it’s important to note that while the title of “social media editor” may be going away, the role is not. Not by a long shot. In fact, the result of this move will put more resources — as well as a 10-person development team — behind social media and community. The point of this move is a recognition that, at least for the Times, social media must be an organizational responsibility. Every journalist here needs to be a social media editor in a sense. Hope that helps clarify, and thanks again!

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  • http://twitter.com/nicolehollway Nicole Hollway

    It’s a slippery slope to reduce the “social media” conversation to one of resource allocation (not that I’m accusing this article of doing so, just prestidigitating on the discussions it might inspire :) ). The Times has very specific outcomes and expectations in mind for their use of social and for their definition of engagement. Organizations of every size have to really assess what they want to get out of it – what their business looks like, how and which things hit their bottom line – individually to decide how, when and at what level of the organization having focused social media resources makes sense. Following suit won’t cut it.

  • http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/author/seamus-condron.php Seamus Condron

    I’m not sure which if any of Jennifer Preston’s duties Aron Pilhofer‘s team may absorb, but I think you still need a shepherd role for the journalists. Yes, it’s imperative that journalists become their own social media editors and engage, but that’s obviously easier said that done. While NYT has some exemplary journalists who are great at utilizing social media for their reporting, it’s important that NYT remember the distinction between tools and engagement. Pilhofer’s team will obviously build some great tech, but social media is a fundamentally human endeavor, and I hope that’s not lost with this shift of philosophy. Jen Preston is a super nice lady. I wish her well.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Hi Libby,

    Thanks for reading the story and commenting on it. I haven’t heard of any mid-size community newspapers hiring social media editors. That’s not to say they haven’t, though. I’m going to ask about this on Twitter and will let you know if I find out anything. My guess is that smaller news organizations don’t have the resources to create a specific social media position and that they’re already sharing these responsibilities.

    ~Mallary

  • http://www.facebook.com/libby.tucker1 Libby Tucker

    Thanks for following up with Jennifer Preston, Mallary. I saw the announcement go out on Twitter and have been curious about the details behind that switch. I’d love to know how more mid-size community newspapers are handling the social media adoption issue. Who is hiring a social media editor for this purpose and is it working?