4 Questions With Chris Hamilton, BBC News’ Social Media Editor

“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 our March edition, we sat down with Chris Hamilton, the social media editor for BBC News. He’s held the role since June 2011, taking over from his predecessor, Alex Gubbay. Hamilton joined BBC News in 2000 after a few years working as a reporter at the Press Association. While at BBC News, Hamilton has worked on the Specials Team, as planning editor for the organization’s websites, and helped organize BBC News’ coverage of the last general election in the U.K.

Here are Hamilton’s thoughts on social media editors, journalism, and the recent backlash the BBC received last month in response to updating a part of its social media guidelines on breaking news and Twitter. 

EZ: What exactly is your role at BBC News?
CH: Part of my role here is looking after the UGC (User Generated Content) hub. It looks after the community activity on our site, gathers material from off site – social networks and the wider web – and sifts and verifies it alongside material that gets sent directly to us.

From it we get eyewitnesses, case studies, video and pictures that are used across BBC News output globally, whether digital, TV or radio. It’s a fantastic team and they deliver really high-value content to the newsroom. In the last year especially it has been absolutely essential to how we’ve covered major stories, especially the Arab Spring but also the tsunami in Japan and the aftermath; the Norway massacre; [and] the riots in England.

[They are] all really big stories in their own right but they were also mass participation stories, at a time when distribution and consumption technologies mean everyone can publish content much more easily and consume it much more easily.

The other big part of my job is on the social media side in terms of the output focus. That includes what we call our three core Twitter accounts — @bbcbreaking, @bbcworld, @bbcnews — as well as the BBC News presence on Facebook and Google+.

I’m also responsible for setting the guidance that our staff uses, and for evangelizing in the newsroom and beyond.

We’re very lucky to have the College of Journalism as part of the BBC who have a fantastic team of trainers who do a lot of the frontline work with individual correspondents but also run a lot of courses that all our producers, reporters, and correspondents go on.

So I work with them on best practice, latest technology, and making sure the guidance is up to date.
And I work with the editorial teams who look after our other branded social media activities like the Today program for example, one of our big flagship radio shows, to make sure that what we’re showing in these spaces is coherent, works well, and fits in with what we’re trying to do overall.

EZ: What are the must-have skills that someone aspiring to be a social media editor needs?
For a newsroom social media role, I think the news element of it is the critical bit. The journalistic skills, the ability to spot a story, to realize why something is significant. Accuracy for us in particular is absolutely essential. And the ability to talk to people — another key journalistic skill — important for getting the story. Being active in social media, so that you can engage with people in a polite, sensible and constructive way is also important.

You [also] have to be able to sell stuff quite well. Headline writing was always a prized skill and it’s a bit like that. But it’s got some different prisms to it now: Where to put a link; hashtags, if it’s Twitter; to ask questions or not; to engage or not; tease; the delayed reveal. All those questions you’ve got about how to post about something.

And then social media awareness and being comfortable with the platforms. I don’t actually think to be in a social media role you have to be active on dozens of different platforms. But you have to be aware of different platforms and how they work and the audiences and be comfortable in those spaces.

EZ: In February, BBC News released updated guidance on how its journalists should handle breaking news on Twitter. The initial reaction was relatively negative. Were you surprised by that?
CH: There were lots of nuances that were missed. One of which was that it wasn’t our social media guidance. It was actually a subset if you like. It was guidance for what to do with a bit of breaking news when you get it. And in fact our social media guidance we refreshed and published last July. This was an adjunct to that I suppose.

I was a bit surprised by the reaction. These things are difficult because obviously, when you’re putting these things together, you hope that people are going to read the detail and understand what you’re trying to do. I think we were pretty clear but for whatever reason there were some misunderstandings about what we were doing, even to the extent that there was an undertone of we were telling people not to tweet, or not to break news on Twitter. And that’s absolutely not what we were saying at all.

We have a system where people can tweet and get a line into our news desk at the same time, and we were saying where people have access to that service, that’s what people should do and where they don’t, you need to get the line of copy in first and then tweet. We’re talking a few seconds difference.
I don’t think it’s that big a deal. Breaking news is of course a big part of Twitter – especially through @bbcbreaking. That’s our number one mission on Twitter.

But equally as important to my mind, for example on Twitter, is to expose the brilliant range of content that we have that comes in that supports the breaking news: The analysis, the color, the video of the event, the interactive. To me that’s really where we get our value from.

Obviously we want to break news, especially where we have it first, quickly, on Twitter. And I don’t think our guidance is incompatible with that. I think we’re in a good position, balancing the needs of the platform and what we’re doing on the platform, with the needs of our news desk operation and all the other bits of output that we have, radio, TV, and digitally, as well.

EZ: Recently, Mandy Jenkins wrote a blog post on being a social media editor and said it’s a job for younger people. What do you think of that?
I think it depends on your definition of social media editor. As we said, I have a busy job but I think any newsroom job potentially is busy. Obviously there is that “always-on” nature, which I think is a lot of what [Jenkins] is getting at, and that obviously social media has accelerated the news cycle.

But talk to anyone who’s involved with any kind of responsibility on a continuous news channel, whether it’s a TV channel or a website or radio station – they can be phoned at whatever time of night. Stories break, and they’ve always broken, any time.

But I’m not saying that I disagree in terms of the role that Mandy was in and describing, and roles like that.

I’d like to be able to spend more of my time curating, talking, exploring. I don’t because I have other things that I have to do, but I don’t think to myself, “This is a job I should’ve been doing 10 years ago.” Maybe there are jobs with the title social media editor where that is the case but that’s not my experience.

To learn more about what projects Hamilton is working on, follow him on Twitter at @chrishams or read his posts on BBC News’ The Editors blog.

Update: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated Hamilton worked for the Associated Press, not the Press Association.