“Four Questions With …” is a monthly series of interviews with different social media and community editors in the news industry.
So, what is it like to be a social media or community editor? What are the job responsibilities and how does one end up landing such a gig? The goal of “Four Questions With …” is to answer some of these questions and to give insight into what is a new and constantly evolving field.
For the month of May, we chatted with Anjali Mullany, the social media editor at Fast Company. Previously, Mullany was social media editor at the New York Daily News. She started working with the Daily News in 2009 while a master’s student at New York University’s Studio 20, ultimately becoming the Daily News’ social media editor. In April, she left to become the social media editor at Fast Company.
Here are Mullany’s thoughts on social media, journalism and how technology is changing innovation in the field.
EZ: What exactly does your job as social media editor at Fast Company entail?
AM: Right now I’m actually doing a deep investigation of what Fast Company is doing already with social media. Looking at the metrics around that. How does the audience behave socially on the site and off of the site in relation to our content and topics that interest our readers.
I’m really working on a strategy white paper so that we have a real social media strategy moving forward for the second half of the year.
So that’s a big part of my job. It’s like a digital strategy job. How are we going to use social and interactive platforms more dynamically, both as a way of building our audience and also as a muscular reporting tool for journalists in terms of improving their actual journalism.
Another part of the job is assisting people in the newsrooms, reporters and editors, with using these tools in their every day work.
Another part of the job is actually working on bigger editorial projects that are more socially minded in an organic kind of way. Where the social aspects of the project, especially editorial projects, is actually baked in from the beginning, from the inception of the project rather than tacked on as an after thought.
Another part of the job is just thinking about our actual website and how we can make our website more useful and creative in a social way. Looking at other platforms and tools and how we can be more engaged with them as a media brand. It’s actually a pretty diverse job.
EZ: How does one land a gig as a social media editor? What are the must-have skills that someone aspiring to be a social media editor needs?
AM: I think you have to be really observant. I think that’s the most important thing.
It’s obviously very important to have great technical skills and to be technically savvy and to be an early adopter when new platforms come out and think of them creatively as a reporter and a journalist. That’s very important.
Especially in this time period of great change in newsrooms, the most important thing is to be able to look at a newsroom or an organization and understand what their existing workflows are and to understand what the goals are of individual people in the organization and of the whole organization.
Really try and figure out how you’re going to insert yourself in that process, in that workflow and meet those goals, instead of trying to be somebody who’s imposing new technology on some people. What can you do to be useful?
The only way that you learn how to do that is to be a really good listener and to be very observant. I think that’s really important.
The most valuable thing that social media editors [and] community managers bring to their newsrooms is not all the great tricks that they have up their sleeve when it comes to using new technology, although that’s really important.
I think what they bring is they solve problems. They solve problems of the digital age.
They figure out how am I going to bridge the gap between what you want and all the demands you have on your time. I think social media can totally help with that but you have to be really thoughtful about it.
Wherever I’ve been able to make any change or bridge that gap, a lot of it has come from trying really hard to understand what people’s workflows are, what demands are already on their time and what they’re trying to achieve and then trying to make what I do fit that.
Beyond that, making sure that you are using all these interesting platforms and trying to think creatively about them and using them in your own reporting and being an example of how to use those tools is really important too.
EZ: What is the biggest challenge facing journalism outlets, such as Fast Company, when it comes to social media?
AM: I’m a strong believer that workflow and technology changes the kind of journalism you put out.
What I’ve seen is just how crucially important it is to have in place workflows that make sense and to use technology that understands that workflow.
For example, a CMS [content management system] that has a lot of constraints behind it will literally change the kind of journalism you can produce and the workflow. If you have a CMS that doesn’t make it easy for a reporter when they file to include a link in their story, that will actually change the output.
If the reporter isn’t the person who is able to put that link in, the editor who ultimately is prepping that story and putting that story up isn’t going to go back and hunt down that link. So you’ll end up with a piece of journalism that might be really informative but doesn’t link out to a source, that doesn’t link out to outside information, whatever. That’s literally how technology can change reporting.
If you don’t have a great project management system, whether you’re using Basecamp … or Google Docs or whatever, if that project management system doesn’t understand how your reporters operate — if they feel they have to jump between email, IM, and text and whatever — that can actually disrupt the kind of work they’re able to produce.
Trying to figure out strategies for digital newsrooms, technologically and in terms of workflow, is the biggest challenge.
I don’t think the challenge is finding good reporters to do good reporting. I don’t think the challenge is even convincing people that social media is here to stay or anything like that.
I think it really comes down to these hardcore, very fundamental infrastructure type problems that haven’t been adequately solved yet.
Once those things become more intelligent, and in the places where they already have, that’s where we see great innovation in journalism evolving.
What are some examples of technology that have “become more intelligent”?
AM: I think TweetDeck actually changed journalism forever.
Suddenly you had this dashboard where it was able to manage so many different streams of information from Twitter and it made so many reporters able to find information faster or be able to watch several accounts at once in one column.
[TweetDeck] made them better able to beat their competition or verify information. It was just such a powerful place for live and breaking news. Obviously you can look at individual journalists and newsrooms that have used that to their advantage. Anthony De Rosa is a great example of that.
So I think that’s an example of a technology that really changed journalism. It changed the type of journalism that was being produced, it made it faster, it made it stronger. It helped innovate the field of reporting on a live platform like Twitter.
The company ScribbleLive out of Toronto that’s powering so many news organizations’ live blogs and live coverage now totally revolutionized [journalism]. When I was at the Daily News that piece of technology totally changed the way that we did live reporting. It emancipated us in so many ways and it emancipated our reporters in so many ways.
During Hurricane Irene, we had reporters all over the city, and these reporters were able to file straight to our website via their phone, via SMS. It was great.
If you want to do live reporting, what’s more live? Is it more live for a reporter to file to an editor who then edits it and then publishes it to the web or sends it to a web editor who then publishes it to the web? Or is it more live to have a reporter post from their phone straight to a website and have it edited in real-time by an editor? The second is faster and we did it all the time.
All of our sports reporters would do it during big events or even during games. They would just report from a laptop or their phone straight to the website and an editor in the office would just have two screens open and be keeping an eye on it, fixing typos and adding extra photos and stuff like that if they had to.
During Occupy Wall Street, for several days after Zuccotti Park was cleared, we had a nonstop, three-to-four daylong blog covering what the protesters were doing all over the city.
We had dozens of editors and reporters involved with this. We simultaneously had a reporter at Wall Street sending in photos from their phone, using the ScribbleLive app to update photos, videos to update the blog, they could text it into the blog, record a voice message and dump it on the blog.
So you could have a reporter doing that there, you could have somebody at Zuccotti Park doing the same thing there, a photographer at the Brooklyn Bridge, editors in the newsroom pulling and aggregating into from around the city.
I had some reporters calling me up like their desk editor and filing to me and I was typing up and posting longer pieces on the blog as we simultaneously had all this live action.
It was a living, breathing organism. So that’s a piece of technology that absolutely changed the kind of journalism we were able to produce. And we wouldn’t have produced that journalism if it weren’t for that technology.
So it works both ways. Technology that doesn’t understand workflow and doesn’t understand your needs will inhibit a digital newsroom from innovating and a technology that does understand those needs and workflows will enable innovation.