No, the job of social media editor isn’t dead — but it sure as heck better be evolving

If you want to get a lot of people to share your post on social media, here’s a tip: Take a shot at the whole idea of social-media editors. BuzzFeed writer Rob Fishman (himself a former social-media editor at Huffington Post) may or may not have had that principle in mind when he wrote a post entitled “The social media editor is dead,” but it worked like a charm anyway: his piece burned up Twitter and Facebook like a flash fire on Wednesday and sparked a passionate debate.

The somewhat inflammatory headline aside, I think Fishman makes some good points in his post about the role of social-media editor — although, like Mallary Tenore at the Poynter Institute, I would argue that the job is not really dying at all, but instead is evolving. So in a sense, those who say the job is outdated and those who argue that it is still necessary are both right.

What do social-media editors do?

The latest version of the argument seems to have been triggered by Anthony De Rosa’s departure as social-media editor at Thomson Reuters earlier this week (he is joining the San Francisco-based mobile news startup Circa as editor-in-chief). That sparked a discussion — which included Reuters blogger Felix Salmon and Business Insider writer Joe Weisenthal — about how few prominent social-media editors there were left other than Andy Carvin of National Public Radio (who doesn’t actually use that title).

weisenthal tweet

Salmon tweet

One of the arguments that Fishman makes — in addition to echoing criticisms from Choire Sicha at The Awl that many social-media editors don’t seem to actually accomplish very much — is that “social media” has become so central to what most media outlets do now that having a specific person dedicated to doing it seems like an anachronism, and in that sense I think he is right. The idea that one person should be the “social-media editor,” and thereby handle all of the social aspects of the news or content business is definitely outdated — or at least should be.

As a historical footnote, I’m pretty sure I was the first “social-media editor” at a major North American newspaper, although at the Globe and Mail (a national daily based in Toronto) we called it “communities editor.” I started in 2008 by setting up the paper’s Twitter account and trying to help reporters and editors understand how to use it, along with Facebook and other social tools, and was mostly a one-man band. Now, many media outlets have entire teams.

NYT newspapers

Fishman notes that Liz Heron, who was then a social-media editor at the New York Times, predicted in 2011 that her job would eventually disappear — but as Poynter notes, Heron is a perfect example of how the job is evolving: at the same time the debate over the death of social-media editors was getting started, Heron (now at the Wall Street Journal) announced she is becoming the “editor of emerging media,” which involves both social and mobile.

Social media skills are even more necessary

In his own contribution to the debate, De Rosa argues that while some media outlets have absorbed the lessons of being social to the point where most of their staff are comfortable with what’s involved, that is far from being the norm in the industry. I think his point is that the skills of a good social-media editor are still required, and in some cases may be even more important than before because the pace of change continues to increase.

“Newsrooms need to be better at doing these things without the help of a social media editor. Sorry, but most of them are not there yet and killing off the role of the Social Media Editor won’t help it happen anytime sooner, in fact it will likely make the transition longer and more painful.”

So is the notion of a single person who spends their entire day on Twitter creating hashtags and calling themselves the social-media editor dead? Yes — or at least I hope so. The idea that being social or engaging with readers in new ways belongs to a specific subset of journalists reminds me of the bad old days when newspapers had a single “internet editor” or “web editor.”

Just as those skills became part of almost everyone’s job, being social (with all that vague term implies) is also part of everyone’s job, or soon will be. All media are becoming social whether they want to or not, but some need more help doing it than others — as the author William Gibson once said, the future is already here but it’s still not very unevenly distributed.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / noporn