Why social media roles in newsrooms shouldn't just be for 'young people'

Social media has opened a new door of career opportunities for media professionals, many of which have been snapped up by tech-savvy young journalists.

Equipped with the speed, skills and determination that keeping up with the social Web demands, these younger journalists are great candidates for helping news organizations connect with their online audiences. What’s more is their inherent understanding of technology can help newsrooms elevate digital strategies.

Unfortunately, some young people are of the mindset that youth is a requirement for these positions.

After reading an article last week titled “Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25,” I was disheartened, but not surprised by author Cathryn Sloane’s claims. (Plenty of other people were disheartened by it, too.) It’s easy for young media professionals to become frustrated with the “people in the generations above us,” she wrote.

While digital media has kept young journalists' dreams of working in a newsroom alive, it’s caused a lot of grief for “newsroom curmudgeons” who resist change. The shift toward online requires more than the skills that are honed in traditional journalism training. In the current environment, journalists must be able to effectively market their own content in the competitive digital space and directly connect with readers through online engagement tools. These tasks can be challenging for those who aren’t accustomed to it.

But reading Sloane’s piece made me realize: It’s not just the seasoned journalists brushing off young Web and social producers who are holding the media industry back. Clearly there are two sides to the ageism coin -- and it needs to stop.

We all come to gain experience in different ways, no matter our age. It’s these experiences, both personal and professional, that shape our worldviews. They affect everything from how we approach a breaking news situation to how we craft a Facebook prompt.

Seasoned journalists rack up incredible experience during the course of their careers. Many have become experts in the core tenets of journalism, including accurate and resourceful reporting. These skills are imperative for media professionals, regardless of age or platform.

Don Hecker, manager of training and education at The New York Times, said being careful is the number one lesson seasoned journalists can teach young journalists.

“Everyone in the digital era has had the experience of getting something out there that was embarrassing,” Hecker said in a phone interview. “While I'm not saying that never happened in print, we learned the value of thinking twice.”

Maybe, as Sloane writes, someone of an older age group wouldn’t know the first thing about writing a good tweet because he or she didn’t spend their “adolescence growing up with social media." But how many early-career journalists can do a foolproof background check on a source found via Twitter?

Still, it’s important to note that not all young media professionals are adept at or enthusiastic about tech.

“All the ‘curmudgeons’ aren’t of an advanced age. I see them all around me, from 20-somethings on up,” Richard Pratt, online editor at Gazette Communications, wrote in response to a blog post by Steve Buttry, director of community engagement and social media at Digital First Media.

Yet young journalists are gaining experience much more quickly than many of their predecessors. The number of students who held college internships grew from 9 percent in 1992 to more than 80 percent in 2008, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. A good deal also study abroad or pick up a double major. These opportunities were less common for previous generations, and it’s tough to ignore the Internet’s role in opening these doors.

“Every generation has changes in history that define them, and social media happens to be one of those for mine,” Sloane wrote.

She’s absolutely right. Navigating online interaction is second nature to today’s youth. It’s opened our minds and presented rich opportunities. The Web has helped young people, like me, quickly gain experience.

When we get caught up in ageism, we forget the goal all newsroom staff members should share: serving the community. While that might manifest in a hashtag for a social media manager, it might manifest itself in a hard-hitting interview for an investigative reporter or in an explanatory graphic for a visual journalist.

“Shared experience has always been, to me, a defining aspect of community,” Buttry said by phone. “Journalists need to tap into that and respect the variety and diversity of what 'community' can mean, and how it can form among people.”

It’s important for young journalists to remember that Internet-based communities weren’t the first communities. Learning what people are saying by attending a council meeting or conducting an in-person interview remain core to journalism.

In addition, Facebook and Twitter were far from the first communities to exist on the Web. Platforms such as Geocities and AOL instant messenger, as well as sites like Fray were sparking online conversations more than 10 years earlier. The digital journalists of this generation were making, breaking and innovating these technologies. They helped shape what we know today as Web 2.0. In fact, they’re the ones who named it.

Journalists of all ages should recognize that social media conversations aren’t entirely frivolous; they can help us understand who community members are, what’s important to them and how they’re connecting with stories.

We're all working toward a mission of community building, whether it’s online or not. If we put aside our ageism and work to recognize the value in one another's experiences, we can better collaborate on projects and make informed decisions in the newsroom.

Working with a range of ages and experiences drives the diversity of thought. It’s time to respect each voice in the conversation for the sake of our communities.

  • Meghan Peters

    As Mashable's community manager, Meghan oversees social media strategy and reader engagement projects. Prior to joining Mashable in 2010, she worked as a web producer at The Seattle Times and managing editor of Microsoft’s JobsBlog. Meghan has a B.A.


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