New York Times could look outside journalism for next social media editor

How hard will it be for The New York Times to replace Liz Heron, who is leaving her job as social media editor to become director of social media and engagement for The Wall Street Journal?

Aron Pilhofer and Sasha Koren, editor and deputy editor of interactive news for the Times, sound like they think it’s going to be pretty tough.

The challenge, Pilhofer said, is not journalists’ lack of interest in social media, or that too few people handle Twitter and Facebook for news outlets. “I don’t know that newsrooms have been super-strategic about how they approach social media,” he said.

There’s a difference between running a Twitter account and working on social media strategy, he said – knowing “how to use social media to amplify the impact of your journalism.”

A small circle of people have recently left social media jobs to take on roles with wider responsibilities. Zach Seward left the Journal, where he was editor of outreach and social media, to become a senior editor of a new business brand of Atlantic Media. Mandy Jenkins walked away from her job as Washington, D.C., social media editor for The Huffington Post to oversee innovation at Digital First Media. Ethan Klapper left National Journal to take her job. And Craig Kanalley will return to Huffington to handle coverage of big news and live events after a short stint as social media editor for NBC News.

“I really do want to find people who are doing interesting things on an enteprise level, who are not necessarily as high-profile yet,” Koren said. “I think it’s possible they’re out there. I may not know about them yet.”

Pilhofer said the difficulty in finding journalists with the right social media skills reminds him of creating the Times’ team of newsroom developers in 2006. “There was a time when it was almost impossible to find anyone who would answer to the title of newsroom developer,” he said.

Of the four-person original development team, only Pilhofer had extensive journalism experience. Two had a little, and one had none.

“I would not completely leave it out of the question for us to hire from a nontraditional source,” Pilhofer said. Like Andy Carvin, who worked in various types of online community organizing before going to NPR? Exactly, Pilhofer responded. Or the Guardian’s Amanda Michel, who moved from political organizing to journalism.

Although Heron agreed that there’s a small number of people who are thinking strategically about social media, she said that pool is getting larger. Social media is “starting to get baked into newsgathering, baked into enterprise reporting, and more and more people are starting to innovate there. … If I were them, I could think of a lot of people I’d want to hire.”

As one of the Times’ two social media editors under Koren (the other is Lexi Mainland), Heron played a part in strategy and handled day-to-day social media responsibilities.

At the Journal, Heron will lead social media and engagement across The Wall Street Digital Network’s properties, including MarketWatch, SmartMoney and its international sites. She expects that she’ll still handle some day-to-day work, too. “I’ll be leading the strategy,” she said. “If that role had been open [at the Times], I would gladly have stayed, but it’s already filled by a very smart person: Aron.”

“For her, it’s a good move,” Pilhofer said. “It’s a big step up … she’s in a position to run the whole thing.”

Seward said her move to the Journal is “such a great, smart hire. WSJ’s social media team is loaded up with really fantastic journalists.”

The social media team at the Journal has one more person than the Times’, and Heron said she thinks the Journal’s team will get larger.

Koren and Pilhofer said the Times has done a lot with its three-person social media staff, which Koren said is “alarmingly small” for a newsroom of 1,100 or so journalists. In addition to two social media editors, Koren oversees the team that moderates site comments. It’s difficult to keep all the Times’ social efforts going with just a few people, she acknowledged, “but not impossible, and we’ve done a lot to try to maximize efficiency.”

The social media staff has been working with individual desks to get them to include social media in their discussions of coverage, in the same way they think of reporting and photography.

Pilhofer hinted that the Times will be adding to its social media staff, too.

“There’s a lot of conversations happening right now about trying to figure out ways to do a lot more than we’re currently capable of doing,” he said. Throughout the company, “there is agreement that social and community are fundamental to what we do and that there needs to be significant investment in it.”

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