4 Questions With Liz Heron, The New York Times Social Media Editor

“Four Questions With …” is an occasional series of interviews with different social media editors in the news industry.

Photo Credit: Eddie Vega

The role of social media editor is a relatively new, and highly coveted, spot in newsrooms. While there are still a lot of unknowns about what exactly this job entails, everyone can agree that there needs to be at least one person handling social media for the company full-time.

So, what is it like to be a social media 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.

We unofficially started off the series in October, when I interviewed Daniel Victor, ProPublica’s then-new social media editor. Now we turn to Liz Heron, one of two social media editors at The New York Times.

Heron joined The New York Times in August 2010, after working at ABC News and the Washington Post. She, along with her colleague Lexi Mainland, are the go-to people at the NYT when it comes to all things social media.

Here are her thoughts on social media and journalism.

EZ: What exactly is your role at the NYT?
LH: My role is focused on a few areas. … It’s real-time reporting, it’s user engagement, and it’s training of journalists here in the newsroom and figuring out how we want to use the new platforms.

We really spent the last year defining a social media sensibility for the entire institution. So, a lot of figuring out how we wanted to be on the main accounts for Twitter and Facebook. Figuring out which new platforms we wanted to use and how. And then doing a lot of training of the other journalists in the newsroom who were interested in changing their game when it came to social media.

I think 2011 was a year in which became totally mainstream in the news. There was a lot of demand for that kind of training.

We also work on real-time reporting. We work a lot on breaking news and figuring out how we want to handle that on the main accounts. For instance, we created an account over the summer, @NYTLive. That was one attempt at figuring out how do you cover a huge breaking news story — in this case Hurricane Irene — without overwhelming your main feed.

We also work on user engagement. Thinking about how do we invite our readers to participate in the news and what does that look like.

We do a lot of what we like to call “hashtag science”, which is just thinking about what’s going to be the perfect hashtag that’s going to be universal enough for people to glom onto and want to contribute to but also specific enough that we’re going to get back good insights that we’re going to want to highlight somewhere. Then what are we going to do with those insights after.

We’re training a lot of the desk to come up with their own hashtag science based on their specific projects and breaking news events.

EZ: How did you land a job as a social media editor?
LH: I was a web journalist for several years. My previous job was working on the foreign desk as an editor at the Washington Post. It happened to be during a time when social media was gaining a lot of prominence in news. It was during the Iranian revolution. There were a lot of major disasters that had happened where social media played a big role in getting the earliest reports or reports from places where reporters couldn’t get to for various reasons. And so that started my passion in it and got me some experience and got me noticed by The New York Times when this job came up.

I think for other people, it’s important to learn how to use social media for journalism. To understand the difference between just using it to promote your work and using it to actually do your work. Using for reporting, to interact with people, and to redefine the way we’re doing journalism.

EZ: How does a reporter use social media beyond just finding sources?
LH: In a larger sense, it’s all about figuring out how to take a story that’s developing on social media and put it together in a way that makes sense [and] in a way that’s fast. It’s kind of pulling the news from the noise, and there is a lot of noise right now because we’re so hyper connected.

Especially with Facebook, it’s about learning how to interact in a journalistic way with your community. So not only crowd sourcing answers to questions that you’re trying to answer but figuring out how to be an ambassador for your news organization and how to start really interesting conversations around the beats that you’re covering. Making them a community that you can go back to over and over again and they feel they can come back to you. It’s not just a one-time relationship. It’s something that you’re building over time.

Covering the news in real-time is important. Knowing what’s news, recognizing patterns, being able to jump on it right away, being able to cover it over time in a real-time fashion is very important.

EZ: What tips would you give a smaller news organization on how to start engaging its audience to build a more responsive community?
LH: I think the most important thing to do right off the bat is to make sure you close the loop.
Don’t just throw out a lot of questions and expect people to answer your questions and then not do anything with their answers. In a way, they’re investing a little bit of their time in you and part of it is because they want to potentially see their answer somewhere in lights or what other people are saying.

So at the very least, you should definitely be retweeting some of the best answers. Do a whole blog post about the responses. Do a story about the response. Include them in your coverage or do something even more interactive, like an interactive graphic. It’s very important to invest as much in them as they’re investing in you by answering your questions.

I would also just say make sure it’s a consistent engagement strategy. Make sure it’s not just once in a while, when you really need something, [that] you come to them and ask a question. You need to be a human voice on your Twitter feed or on your Facebook page and be doing it on a consistent basis. That’s the way to slowly build an audience that is a community that is going to respond to you and give you something really good when you particularly want it.

To learn more about what projects Heron is working on, follow her on Twitter at @lheron or subscribe to her on Facebook.