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Social Media for Newspapers: Risks and Rewards

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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."

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