Social Media Editors Debate, Defend Their Role In Newsrooms

Experts: the job has changed, but it still serves a purpose

A handful of top social media editors and experts defended the relevance of their newsroom roles on Friday in light of a BuzzFeed article that declared "the social media editor is dead."

During a HuffPost Live segment on Friday, Rob Fishman—the author of the BuzzFeed post and a former social media editor at The Huffington Post—said the position of social media editor has resulted in untested and inexperienced journalists suddenly finding themselves in high profile, authoritative positions, even if they aren't necessarily qualified to be the spokespeople for their news brand. That role, if it isn't dead yet, should be retired, Fishman argued.

Anthony DeRosa, the outgoing social media editor at Reuters, countered that there are journalists at his organization—Felix Salmon and Jim Roberts, for instance—who have larger personal followings than he does, adding that not every social media editor acts as the face of their organization. Rather than just serving as Reuters' tweeter-in-chief, DeRosa said his focus is on news gathering and working with user-generated content to incorporate it into the news organization's reporting, which is still a task many traditional reporters are unfamiliar with.

Liz Heron, who was recently promoted from director of social media to editor of emerging media at The Wall Street Journal, had previously predicted that the social media editor job might become obsolete in a few years. But for now it remains an important role. BuzzFeed, she pointed out, has two social media editors on staff. "Even digital natives still need this role in their newsrooms," she said.

Later, Heron added: "It's really diminishing the role of a social media editor to say just because everyone in the newsroom understands how to use Twitter, we don't need them anymore. It's like saying you don't need a front page editor, to use a more legacy analogy. You still need somebody in charge of what's going to be the final output for your largest readership."

In Fishman's piece (and during the live segment), he took issue with the fact that a handful of social media editors used the Twitter accounts of their news organizations to discuss lunch one afternoon. Instead of humanizing the news organizations, Fishman said Friday it makes the whole business feel insidery and exclusive. Fishman added that an expansion of Twitter's list function evoked an "orgy of excitement" among social media professionals. The feature may have news gathering purposes, but the average user won't even notice, Fishman said.

"I don't think you really understand what the role of a social media editor is," DeRosa injected. "The fact that you downplay the fact that we can now build that many lists on Twitter just shows the fact that you really don't understand what goes into being a social media editor."

But back to lunch. Mathew Ingram, a senior writer at GigaOm, said he doesn't mind lighthearted fare every once in a while, since social media is inherently social. Otherwise it's just spam, he said. 

HuffPost's senior social media editor, Kerstin Shamberg, agreed. While there are newsier topics than lunch to tweet about, the episode served as a reminder that an actual human being is behind the curtain sending out updates to the social accounts, she said.

Watch the full segment below:

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