4 Questions With Brian Ries, Social Media Editor at Newsweek & The Daily Beast

“Four Questions With …” is a monthly series of interviews with different social media and community editors in the news industry.

Photo Credit: Angela Cranford

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.

This month, we talked to Brian Ries, the social media editor at Newsweek & The Daily Beast. Unlike some other social media editors, Ries didn’t start out in journalism. He started his current job in August 2010 after working at advertising and marketing companies with a heavy social bent. He began writing for Newsweek The Daily Beast while it was one of his clients. (It merged with Newsweek later.)

Ries further caught the editors’ attention when, in July 2010, he reported a Facebook post by Sarah Palin on the Ground Zero mosque as hate speech. His resulting Tumblr post went viral and Facebook even took down Palin’s post. He ended up writing an article about it for the site.

Here are his thoughts on what skills a social media editor needs and how you can make your mark in a newsroom with an already established social media strategy.

EZ: What is the biggest challenge using social media at a place like Newsweek & The Daily Beast?
BR: For us, I think we’re pretty unique in the sense that we have our news website where we try to get the latest news on there, try to get it out the quickest, we try to be right about it, we try to have good opinions. So of course we’re using social media to mirror that.

Then we also have Newsweek magazine, which is this awesome legacy magazine that’s been around a very long time. That has a much internationally-wider name recognition and product recognition.

They’re two very different brands that we use together to kind of help each other out. I think that’s a big challenge in figuring out how to use Daily Beast content in the Newsweek framework.

For one instance, Mark Coatney, who works at Tumblr now, started this awesome Newsweek Tumblr blog back in the day. It’s now very, very popular for us and I love it. Of all the various social media platforms that we have, it’s kind of my special one right now. It’s a great community. They’re all very smart. They love to talk about the news.

So I do put a lot of Daily Beast content on there. I think it mixes really well because it’s every day; it’s what’s happening on the news; what people are reading about; what people are hearing about. It’s basically just picking the right content and putting it in the right places — that is one challenge.

Another is of course is what’s at every organization and it is just threading that social needle throughout the newsroom. Whether you have young journalists or experienced journalists, it’s always a tool they might not be used to using. It’s about presenting it in the right context and making them excited about it.

You can walk in there and be kind of cocky with your Twitter skills and say, “Hey, you gotta be tweeting. Why aren’t you doing that?” But that tends not to work. So I think the way to do it is to think about each individual journalist and how they can potentially use it and show them. Wow them.

A lot of times you’ll plug in there and open up a certain Twitter search and that is just the matrix for some people. It shows them everything they wanted to know about a certain subject. I love that.

EZ: What are the must-have skills that someone aspiring to be a social media editor needs?
BR: The most important thing is to be aware of the various tools that are out there and to be able to apply them to the needs of the newsroom and maybe the company at large.

A lot of people get obsessed with the idea that social media editors are running the Twitter account or updating the Facebook page. And that is a large part of it, for sure, at some companies more than others. But it’s also about strategizing and thinking how can I take the news product as it has always existed, whether it’s in print or on TV or online, and fracture it into a million little pieces and convert it into something that makes sense on these new platforms, these new tools, these new networks that are sprouting up.

If you have a story in Newsweek we’re going to think about okay, what’s the tweet for that story? How’s that going to look on Facebook? Do we even want to put that in Google Plus? Should we put that on our Tumblr page and do we ask a question there?

So that’s a big part of it, the day-to-day taking the news product and sharing it out but it’s also thinking about how we can look forward and look ahead and make the newsroom a more social environment.

EZ: Can you explain more about the process you go through to “fracture” content into smaller pieces?
A lot of it is really, really knowing you’re community and knowing what they want and what they expect out of you and not intruding. You don’t want to intrude with your content.

On a very kind of day-to-day, tactical level, say we come in on a Monday — currently we publish the magazine Sunday night/Monday Morning — so I’ll come in with my colleague Sam Schlinkert and we will basically write 30 or 40 tweets that we think best capture the story.

We’ll then prioritize them based on the news cycle. We’ll say okay, these are much more valuable to get out now because they’re either dealing with the cover or they deal with what’s in the news or about to be in the news. Then we’ll plan out to [post] to either Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook. There’s a lot of planning. There’s a lot of updating.

And it’s really important, I think, to sit back and look ahead and think what should we be using next. Should we think about growing our Pinterest page and for what reason?

And of course you’re going to have big tent pole things coming up, whether it’s that you have a big magazine cover coming up next week. Do you want to do something special around that? Maybe get the cover subject involved? Or maybe you have an event coming up. We’ll plan a way to cover it from a social news desk sense. And that’s a lot of fun.

There’s a million different things you can be doing with social media. Somebody else, I think maybe it was Anjali when you interviewed her, said you have to be a good problem solver. … I think that’s very, very true. You’re presented with an endless stream of problems and you have an endless set of tools and you’re basically matching them.

EZ: You stepped into the role after Newsweek & The Daily Beast were well known for its use of Tumblr. How does a new social media editor still make an impact when he or she goes into a newsroom where the social media strategy has already been defined?
BR: I think you have to be very respectful of the reader. You have to put yourself in their shoes.

I think you see that a lot with blogs or websites. I feel like Idolator was one of them, that music blog. They had a kind of snarky tone for a while and then all of a sudden it became an “American Idol” blog overnight. And people were like, “Zombie Idolator. What’s going on here?”They’re on their Tumblr dashboard, they’ve been subscribing to Newsweek, they’ve been subscribing to maybe 100 other blogs. If you come in there all of a sudden with a completely different voice, they’re going to be like, “Wow, what is zombie Newsweek doing here?”

So you have to be really respectful of the voice. That’s the most important thing. And then I think you can tweak your strategy going forward as much as you want.

I don’t think people question if there’s a little change in the content or how you’re using it. If anything, they’ll see it as being innovative. But as long as you keep the tone and voice in place as much as possible, I think you’ll find you’ll be OK.

Be protective of it. Treat it like a child. You come in, you’ve been given the reins to this established property with this established voice. It can be easy for a boss who might not understand that to ask you to do something completely different that might be a shock to the followers and the readers.

It’s your job to kind of question that. To be like, “Well, I don’t know. They’re not used to being sold ads to or to getting sponsored tweets in their feed.” We should question that. We should think if it’s the right move and whether or not it will spark some kind of uproar or revolt, which is a nightmare.

I think a lot of it is it’s also really important to listen. When we come out with the magazine, it’s the type of thing that tends to start a national conversation or a media conversation, whether it’s the first gay president cover or something else.

We’ll come out Mondays or Tuesdays and we’ll try to be very attuned to what’s being talked about in regards to our brand and the stories we’ve put out there. And then react.

Say we put out a cover. We’re monitoring the cover and see people are kind of messing with it and making jokes.

A meme develops. It’s our job to go to the editors and be like, “Hey check this out. This is kind of funny. People are having some fun with our cover. Maybe we should do a top eight best reactions to our cover gallery.” And that’s how you give something that comes out on a Monday almost like a second life to it. Which is great.

Be aware of what you have to offer and what’s exclusive to you. For instance, every Saturday I get a new cover in my inbox. And on Sunday morning I’m up and I’ve got Facebook open, Twitter open, Tumblr, Google Plus [open]. We roll it out all at once to have maximum impact on social and spark that discussion if it’s a part of an interesting cover.

It works really well. Our first gay president cover, which had Obama in the rainbow halo, the average retweet amount for Newsweek is usually 12-13, but that one was over 250. And we saw that happening on Tumblr, Facebook, and everywhere we went. Everywhere we put that cover, the reaction was really intense.

Just knowing that, seeing that, being aware of that, we know Monday’s going to be rather interesting. You come and it’s like alright, game time.

To learn more about what projects Ries is working on, follow him on Twitter at @moneyries, follow him on his personal Tumblr or read his posts on Newsweek’s Tumblr.