Social Media for Newspapers: Risks and Rewards

Ask editor Bill Marimow of The Philadelphia Inquirer about the ways his staff has used social media, and he’ll reel off a list. There was the high school that went into lockdown after someone brought a gun to school; the man who leaped to his death off a downtown hotel; the teacher charged with having sex with a student. In each case, the paper gathered information about one or more elements of the story from Facebook or MySpace.

One of the notable Inquirer examples involved Bonnie Sweeten, the suburban mom whose supposed abduction in reality, a trip to Disney World with her daughter, drew national attention in May. The paper’s coverage included several uses of Facebook comments Sweeten supposedly posted. On the Web, the paper posted a gallery of photos, several obtained from her Facebook page. Marimow says staffers also used the page to find out about her high school friends. Reporting via social media can provide “a lot of insight,” he says, but warns: “The main problem is verification. You have to make sure it is the truth.”

The Inquirer’s Facebook sourcing is just one of the numerous ways social media is exploding in newsrooms, including the use of Twitter to promote stories; Facebook and MySpace for reader connections and reporting; LinkedIn for business; Digg for discussions; and Flickr for photos. “This is really part of daily reporting it’s not weird anymore,” says Hal Straus, assistant managing editor for interactivity and community at The Washington Post. “Anytime there is a big story that everyone is paying attention to, people will respond on these sites.”

Straus cites the June 10 Holocaust Museum shooting in Washington, D.C, which became such a big story that the paper set up a blog on its main site to handle continuing developments. But just moments after those posts went up, the Post’s main metro-news Twitter account was buzzing with updates from the Web. “We essentially twittered the highlights of the blog,” he adds.

For most newspapers, Facebook and Twitter have become the primary social-media outlets. The Post boasts eight official Twitter accounts, while its Facebook network spans 16 different memberships, including one for former employees. “We look at the page to reflect highlights in our core topic areas,” Straus says of the paper’s main Facebook account, which has about 24,000 “fans.”

The New York Times, however, is perhaps the most active social-networking newspaper. Its main Twitter account, which notes nearly every story posted on its main site, surpassed one million followers in June; its Facebook page boasts about 460,000 fans. In late May the Grey Lady appointed its first social media editor, veteran newswoman Jennifer Preston. While some staffers worried she was going to be something of a Twitter and Facebook cop, Preston says her job is to coordinate all uses of social media.

“Clearly, there are a lot of conversations and a lot of sharing on these sites, and it is important to be part of the conversation,” adds Preston, who admits she’s still learning the ropes.

But what are the pitfalls? Concerns range from taking copyrighted or private material off of a Facebook page for use in a story to twittering opinions or misinformation when the rush is on to break and update news. “It is not quite clear what the right use is,” says Andrew Nystrom, a senior producer for social and emerging media at the Los Angeles Times. “If you aren’t a friend of someone on Facebook, should you be pulling photos off Facebook? We err on the side of caution.”

Fatigue also warrants consideration. Along with writing for print, which most journalists at newspapers still do, they are updating Web stories and often blogging. Add in Twitter updates of stories and observations, maintaining Facebook or MySpace pages, and checking those of others they are “following” or “friending” and the task-juggling only increases all as newsrooms continue to cut staff.

“If your day gets longer and you have fewer people checking behind you and you have more to do than before, it is absolutely delusional to think the journalism itself isn’t suffering,” says Keith Woods, dean of faculty at The Poynter Institute. But he adds that the social-media outlets are useful, calling them “traditional tools of journalism on steroids.”


Guidelines raise eyebrows

Within the span of a few days in May, The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post both issued revamped policies regarding social media, following the Los Angeles Times, which issued similar new rules in March. New policies range from the Journal warning of, “Don’t discuss articles that haven’t been published, meetings you’ve attended or plan to attend with staff or sources, or interviews that you’ve conducted” to the Post declaring, “we don’t use new media to get into verbal fisticuffs with rivals or critics, or to advance personal agendas.”

The Associated Press updated its policies in late June with a short memo to employees, a move that drew complaints from the News Media Guild that represents more than 1,400 AP employees in the U.S. Among the problems cited: a policy requiring any material posted that does not meet AP standards to be deleted from Facebook pages, even if a “friend” posted it.

“It is making some people cringe,” says News Media Guild Administrator Kevin Keane. “It is not appropriate for a company that heralds free speech.” He also objected to a rule barring discussion of internal AP operations: “You can’t tell people not to talk about anything internal to AP. It is too broad.”

Philadelphia-based AP reporter Richard Richtmyer found himself in hot water in June (before the new policy was put in place) for a comment he posted on his Facebook page a month earlier, criticizing management of McClatchy, whose stock plummeted after its 2006 takeover of Knight Ridder. “It seems like the ones who orchestrated the whole mess should be losing their jobs or getting pushed into smaller quarters,” he wrote on May 28. “But they aren’t.”

Richtmyer was reprimanded with a letter in his file, but declined to comment on the incident. It also sparked a memo from Guild administrator Keane to members that stated: “We have seen about six Facebook problems over the last two months, with employees maybe managers you have as friends reporting potential issues to management. You must be careful who you allow on as friends.”

But other editors have different views, with some still updating policies in recent months and others offering less-specific directives. “We think people need to be engaged in social media. There are sources and stories and tips out there,” says Editor Sherry Chisenhall of The Wichita Eagle, which updated its ethics policy in February with two sentences: “Be aware of potential perceived bias in those you accept or reject as friends. Be mindful that personal postings can affect your credibility as a journalist.”

She says: “We want to stop short of telling people to do this or that and just to be careful.”


A tweet season

At the moment, Twitter remains the hottest social-media phenomenon. But even with new regulations in place, many editors are still juggling the best uses of the exploding Twittersphere with growing concerns of how to avoid abuse and mismanagement. “It is a very big deal,” says Lou Ferrara, managing editor/sports, entertainment and multimedia for the Associated Press. “Many people underestimate it in a lot of ways. It is what we are moving toward.”

Ferrara and others point to several stories in the past year, from the January emergency landing of a U.S. Airways jet in New York’s Hudson River to last fall’s Mumbai attacks, as examples of how Twitter delivered news and photos. The post-Iran election protests in June also showed how both news outlets and citizens bypassed government shutdowns to get information out. Some even dubbed it the “Twitter Revolution.”

After the May shooting of abortion doctor George Tiller in Wichita, Kan., The Wichita Eagle used Twitter to both promote its online coverage and follow breaking events, including a vigil that formed within hours of the killing. “It made a big difference as word spread,” editor Chisenhall recalls. “That night about 400 people attended the vigil. That’s a pretty good turnout on a Sunday night.”

But Twitter sourcing is not limited to big-picture international protests or tragic emergencies, says AP’s Ferrara. He cites many in the entertainment-reporting world catching scoops from the growing legion of celebrities who twitter in an attempt to promote themselves, get their views out, and bypass the press. One example he cites: a “tweet” by American Idol host Ryan Seacrest about a phone line problem during the hit show’s voting period. “I don’t think we would have known about that, and we ended up doing a story on it,” he adds.

On the other hand, some in the mainstream have falsely reported as fact Twitter pranks announcing the “deaths” of Jeff Goldblum, Harrison Ford and others.

According to Cindy Boren, The Washington Post’s deputy sports editor and a leader on its Washington Redskins coverage, twittering by fans and players delivers numerous scoops. “It is great for things like injury updates, and it has become a big deal with people twittering from games,” she says, citing a tweet during a game about a fire in the parking lot that led to a Web report. Boren says stories off her beat also arise. One such issue was when numerous twitterers were commenting on the difficulties they were having loading the White House Easter Egg Roll Web page to sign up for the annual event. It ended up on the front page of the metro section.

“You approach the factual content with the same degree of skepticism as you do [with] Wikipedia,” says Jim Willse, editor of The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. “The reporting process is the same as it was 100 years ago. You take the same measures you need to take to satisfy yourself that something is accurate.” Willse, who maintains a Twitter feed of his own, and other editors agree the site helps them keep tabs on newspaper-industry happenings. He follows the accounts of The Nieman Lab, Techcrunch and others. “I will frequently see a post from a trade organization that has a link to it,” he adds. “Someone who has more time than I do, who says something is worth reading. It is a reference service.”

Alan Murray, executive editor/online for The Wall Street Journal, does the same. He first learned of the last-day editorial in the Tucson Citizen (which folded its print edition in May) via a Twitter item. “I find it a useful tool for filtering information,” he says. “Following other people who are interested in the same things you are.”


Making some ‘face’ time

Many newsroom leaders point to the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech University as the moment when they discovered the sourcing power of Facebook and MySpace. Those social-media pages, where millions upload photos and information and voice their views, were first sought on a major story during the campus killings that left 33 dead.

For The Roanoke Times, it was the fact that reporter Anna Mallory had a Facebook account still something of a rarity back then that helped the paper find out information about victims and shooter Seung-Hui Cho. “You could see what was happening, all of the [Web] memorials going up,” recalls Carole Tarrant, the Times’ editor. “And reaction from people. But [Facebook] had been open to the public for only a year, so to use it you had to know someone.”

Since then, the paper has seen other, less-explosive examples of using Facebook (MySpace has faded a bit as a media source) to both promote and find stories. One arose in 2008 when a former Virginia Tech president who had retired but was well-known revealed on his Facebook page he had been diagnosed with cancer. “We found it because an editor was part of a Virginia Tech Facebook community,” Tarrant recalls. “But we did not report off that. We took that as a strong lead. If it is out there and verifiable, you can do it.”

Mike Fancher, editor-at-large for The Seattle Times, wrote as early as 2006 about various ways his paper had gathered information from MySpace, Facebook and even Classmates.com, a high school reunion site. “We use it as a road map to find friends, contacts and clues,” says Seattle Times Executive Editor David Boardman. “Clues we can verify.”

It’s not just major dailies making use of this type of sourcing, either. The Joplin (Mo.) Globe plied the Facebook page of one of two teen victims allegedly murdered by 17-year-old Garret Mason in nearby Nevada, Mo. Says Editor Carol Stark, “We were able to get on there and find out tons of information about them.” The paper carefully checked facts and rumors, among them that one of the victims was pregnant (which wasn’t true): “It’s dicey. We didn’t use that.”

Such verification is among the chief concerns editors point to when allowing the use of these sites in newsgathering: They should not be single sources and in the case of photos, often should be approved by those who posted them.


Photo finish: What can we use?

“There is no exception to copyright for images posted on the Internet and social-media sites. Anything someone writes on there is protected,” says New York attorney Nancy Wolff, who has advised newspapers on such issues. “One exception is fair use, and that is not automatic. You don’t expect it will show up in a newspaper when you post it for your friends.”

Not that such posters are always legally protected. Wolff cited a case earlier this year in Coalinga, Calif., in which the Coalinga Record published as a letter to the editor a MySpace posting from a local college student who wrote about how she despised Coalinga, the town where she lived. The posting was sent to the newspaper by the student’s former high school principal without her permission.

After the student, Cynthia Moreno, sued the paper and the school district claiming the publication drew threats and abuse, the case made it to the state Court of Appeals. But the justices unanimously agreed she had no standing, noting the comments had been placed on a public Web site, even if they were only meant for a small group of MySpace members.

Joel Hecker, a copyright attorney and chair of the New York City Bar Association’s committee on copyright and literary property, says the answer isn’t always cut and dry. He cites both copyright issues and privacy laws when determining if newspapers can legally reprint Facebook or MySpace photos.

“The photographer involved owns the copyright of the image,” he says. “If you were to [lift] a photo that was professionally taken from a MySpace or Facebook page, you have copyright infringement. If it was not professionally taken, it is not as much of a risk.”

On the privacy aspect, he adds, “With editorial use in connection with a story, you should not have a problem if the person is the subject of the story. If it is someone superfluous to the story, you may have a problem.”

If the photo is embarrassing or shows the subject in an unflattering light in a way that is not related to the story, Hecker says, that also could prompt legal action.

Among the most notable examples of photos being appropriated by the media were the MySpace shots of Ashley Alexandra Dupre, the prostitute sex partner of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Some newspapers use such photos without permission, such as the Star-Ledger, which ran a Facebook photo of two sisters who were injured in a May boating accident. Editor Willse says he likens such use to any photo obtained by creative means: “If you run across a photo in a yearbook or a country club program, or some other form.”


Why stop at a Pulitzer?

One would think someone like Nicholas Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, would not need to promote himself via Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. But the 50-year-old does just that, and across all three outlets. “I experimented with a MySpace page, but gave that up,” he says. “But I have a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a YouTube channel. My interest originally arose because social-network valuations were soaring and newspaper valuations were tumbling down.”

Kristof, who travels abroad regularly as part of his work, updates at Twitter and Facebook almost daily, and places videos on his YouTube channel whenever he does a video for the Times’ Web site. “It all takes a chunk of time, about an hour a day,” he says, adding that the key is to use those outlets for items and information that would not make it into his twice-weekly column or even his Times blog.

Kristof cites one example in which he sought travel tips from Facebook readers for a column that ran May 31, for which he says “a couple of hundred suggestions came in.” He did another asking for input on drug legalization for a column on the subject. “There is a lot of chaff with the wheat,” he says of those responses. “But if I can’t hammer out a column on something I care about, I can post it on Facebook. I don’t have a vehicle as a columnist for adding incremental steps on issues. There is so much reporting on my trips I can never use it all in the columns.” A recent scan of Kristof’s Facebook page found items ranging from the extraordinary escape of his colleague, David Rohde, from a kidnapping by Taliban leaders to his tongue-in-cheek concerns about children, like his son being on debate teams. “Teenagers are already pretty aggressive at litigating every issue around the house,” he wrote. “Do you really want to arm your antagonist with advanced skills?”

As for other concerns, Kristof agrees that the speed and mass of information can tempt mistakes, or regrets. “I am often posting something at 3 a.m. when I am jet-lagged and with no one looking at it,” he says. “I am afraid at some point that I will say something really stupid. I always look it over and count to 10 before I hit the button.”


Challenges ahead

One of the biggest challenges in using all of these forms together is deciding which to focus on, how to juggle what to put where, and how to still keep people coming to your Web site and print product. Readers can end up using Twitter or Facebook as the only means of following news; goodbye, newspaper sites.

There’s also, of course, the ongoing debate over how to limit or regulate what journalists put on these sites; how far is too far with opinion or personal information? Some of the new newspaper rules even discuss keeping confidential sources private and not revealing too much about sensitive sources.

“I don’t think it consumes too much time, but there are things you don’t want to do,” says Murray at the Wall Street Journal. “You don’t want to tweet things before they are on the Web site. You don’t want to tweet personal stuff that calls in to question fairness and objectivity of reporting. If you cover the Supreme Court, you shouldn’t tweet that you are on your way to an abortion rights rally.”

Straus at the Washington Post says that not all social-networking sites are created equal: “Each of them reports to a different audience. We are consistently evaluating whether we should be trying to reach that audience and how to go about it.” He says of the Post’s own Facebook page, “We look at that to reflect highlights in our core topic areas; we do not look at it as a place for everything. If [readers] want to see everything, they’ll come to our Web site.” He adds that LinkedIn, the business networking community, is likely to become a more active spot for the paper’s financial coverage: “If you want to reach a business and financial audience, it makes sense.”

The Press-Republican in Plattsburgh, N.Y., actually had its first Twitter account created in May by a reader who “thought it was a natural adjunct to our reporting,” says editor Bob Grady. “So now whenever we have a big story, the news editor puts out that we have a reporter working on the story.”

Grady says twittering about a pending story helps bring in sources, even if there’s a danger of leaking a scoop. The Press-Republican’s Facebook page also updates daily with breaking news and afternoon and evening reports with links to stories. “It is a grab for our audience, a younger audience,” he says. “We went from zero to 80 people following us on Twitter in the first week.”

AP’s Ferrara calls the process of sourcing all the social media sites the Deep Dive. “You need to do that the minute the story unfolds,” he says. “But do we want every department to have a Twitter account? We are still deciding.”

Still, he adds, “We break news through AP channels; we should not be breaking news through Twitter. We should be twittering stories after we break them.”

But in the end, how effective are these social-media sites in helping a newspaper gain readers, advertising and other important elements for the business side? “I don’t know that there’s a huge effect,” says Rick Edmonds, a business-media analyst at Poynter. “It does potentially help grow audience and keep it. … Social media can have a place in identifying people’s interests and serving advertising that meets those interests.”

Poynter, he adds, has started offering social-media training in its workshops, and it is currently a top favorite: “A lot of people are interested in it.”

This feature story first appeared in
Editor & Publisher‘s August print edition.

Nielsen Business Media