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Does it matter that some New York Times editors and writers don’t tweet? Yes and no

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BuzzFeed recently ran a post on what it called the New York Times‘ “Twitter graveyard,” which turned out to be a list of accounts set up by the newspaper’s editorial staff that are either dormant or unused, including some that still have the default egg avatar given to Twitter newbies. But does that mean some staffers just haven’t taken to a particular platform, or does it mean the paper’s writers and editors aren’t doing enough to engage with readers?

That was the underlying question behind a discussion I had with a number of senior NYT staffers on Monday — including the paper’s deputy digital editor and co-author of the recent internal “innovation report” — after one (a senior member of the paper’s development team, Jacob Harris) referred to the BuzzFeed piece somewhat dismissively, implying that using Twitter accounts as a proxy for whether journalists are doing their jobs is neither fair nor particularly enlightening (I’ve also created a Storify collection of some of the relevant tweets).

I tried to argue that focusing solely on whether someone is on Twitter is trivial, and may even be unfair, but the larger point being made by BuzzFeed and others is that the Times may be lacking in the area of social engagement with readers. And this is important because it could literally be the key to survival for media companies and journalists alike, as social starts to replace search.

Engaging means more than just listening

A number of Times staffers, including deputy international editor Lydia Polgreen, made the point that there are plenty of reporters and editors who use Twitter regularly and are open to engaging with readers, a group that includes media writer David Carr, Polgreen herself, science writer John Schwartz, columnist Nick Kristof and others. As she pointed out, readers have far more engagement potential with NYT writers than they have ever had.

Foreign correspondent Damien Cave and others echoed a common refrain, which is that just because a New York Times reporter or editor doesn’t tweet a lot doesn’t mean that they aren’t listening to readers and following conversations about stories — a point that deputy digital editor Amy O’Leary also made. Others noted that there are lots of different ways to respond to readers and engage with them, including Facebook, email and in person.

As I tried to argue, however, listening is only part of the equation when it comes to engagement, and it’s likely the easiest part. The hard part is having to respond when someone criticizes your piece or points out an error — but that is also when engaging is at its most powerful, and it can ultimately result in better journalism.

Engaging publicly is crucial

To her credit, O’Leary — who now has the task of implementing some of the recommendations she wrote about in the innovation report — has tried to make these same points in presentations (such as the slide deck embedded below) about how the jobs of journalists have changed in the age of the web, and how listening and engaging are now a crucial part of the work that they do.

[slideshare id=33167790&w=427&h=356&style=border:1px solid #CCC; border-width:1px; margin-bottom:5px; max-width: 100%;&sc=no]

One person who has been singled out for his lack of tweeting is Dean Baquet, the NYT’s new executive editor — perhaps in part because he is the one who will have to implement some of the recommendations in the innovation report, and he is not known for being someone who is all that friendly towards the web, nor are many of those whom he just appointed to senior editorial roles.

As my friend Jeff Jarvis argued during the discussion, one of the benefits of someone like Baquet being on Twitter is that it sends a message that he and his publication are interested in what readers have to say, beyond just a letter to the editor, and they are willing and able to respond to criticism — as opposed to leaving all that to be handled by public editor Margaret Sullivan.

Journalism is no longer one-way

Polgreen (and others I have spoken to both publicly and privately at the Times) argued that Baquet has enough on his plate trying to manage the newspaper with all the upheaval that has been going on there, not to mention some fairly huge breaking stories such as Syria and Iraq, without having to tweet as well.

One of the Times‘ social-media editors, Michael Roston, argued in an earlier response to the BuzzFeed piece that reporters are too busy doing journalism to tweet, implying that it is a waste of their time. And there’s no question that it takes time to engage with readers around your journalism. But it’s not as though this is a binary question of tweeting or not; as Cave argued, it’s just a matter of somehow finding a balance between reporting and interacting with readers.

What is increasingly clear to me is that interacting and engaging are part of a journalist’s job now, regardless of what platform they use to do it. And it’s not enough to respond to an email, which only two people (the sender and the receiver) will ever see. To achieve the full effect, it has to be done as publicly as possible — that’s where the transparency part comes in.

As I tried to describe in an earlier post, there’s a temptation within many newspapers to believe that the only problem the web has created is how to get all that excellent journalism to readers most efficiently, and to see the social web as merely a distribution mechanism or PR gesture. Engaging with readers is much more than that — it’s the key to developing a new kind of interactive, two-way journalism, and that journalism may ultimately be the only kind that survives.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Rani Molla

10 Responses to “Does it matter that some New York Times editors and writers don’t tweet? Yes and no”

  1. Gavin McGarry

    Many people in the media are obsessed with using Twitter while their audiences are all using Facebook. Twitter is, for the most part, a hyper niche community of generally like minded or industry sector focused people. That is it’s power and it’s achilles heel.

    Most of our media clients experience considerably more traffic to their web properties from Facebook over Twitter. In our implementation of social media ecosystems for large newspapers the data showed that, while Twitter was important, most of the engagement by the general public with the newspaper was on Facebook. Many traditional newspapers have not had strong Facebook strategies as they have been focusing on Twitter and this has lead to some audience neglect.

    Further, we found that Twitter conversation around newspapers was mostly between journalists and people who worked in media; not the general public. To that end we trained over 150 journalists in a newsroom to focus on Facebook first but not Facebook only. We believe Twitter is a very important part of any newspaper’s social ecosystem. It just can’t be the only platform that journalists focus on as the Facebook audience dwarfs many of the other social networks combined.

    Finally, we are now recommending news organizations use Snapchat’s new public features to begin connecting with the younger generation by delivering relevant news to them on a platform that has exploding user growth.

    Great article.

  2. I’m an editor of a biweekly publication with a tiny staff. As editor, I assign stories, cover and write stories, help the photo editor, layout and edit pages, and manage our publication’s social media and web efforts — all this in addition to answering daily inquiries and complaints. We can only get so much done during regular business hours. With the advent of social media I find myself working way into the night – after the usual 9 to 5 — catching up on posts and replies.

    If the critics want to work our hours, come along. It’s easy to criticize when you can quickly type out judgement. You’re not working a 60-hour-plus week.

    Try living in our shoes for a week — and getting paid a pittance for our dedication, because we believe readers matter.

  3. Well, I find it somewhat surprising that a profession that in many ways relies on people being accessible and sharing would think that they have better things to do than … being accessible and sharing. Also: the fact that a senior executive at the times also has other responsibilities is fine — but how much he does himself and how much he delegates is entirely up to him, is it not?

  4. Bruno Boutot

    Great round up. You show very well how very good journalists and editors can be clueless when it comes to Twitter or, more generally, to the great swarm of readers threatening to eat us alive. (Cue in Dan Gillmor 2004 – 10 years!) Of course, we don’t have all the answers, but we can ask a few questions, like;

    Would you like to be helped in your daily job by people you greatly admire?
    Would you like to be surrounded by experts in any domain you are working on?
    Would you like to be surprised by peers looking on your topic from a different angle?

    Yes, “readers” is too big a group, and quite frightening. But if we can filter, for example, “people I greatly admire”, “experts in a domain”, “peers looking on my topic”, we’ll have made a few steps in the right direction.

  5. Veasey Conway

    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned regarding this discussion: Dormant social media accounts are just unsightly. Dormant social media accounts suggest you are old and crusty and/or suggest that you created the profile out of peer pressure. A dormant Twitter account goes far to highlight the obligation many people/organizations feel to be on EVERY social media outlet. If you’re not using it, get rid of it. Practice some digital dustbusting. For a media outlet — online or otherwise — the devil is in the details. That’s great if your home page looks great, but if the consistency, usefulness and quality degrades as I get into deeper pages of your website/online presence, part of me will be turned off.

  6. Seriously, this is a question? The editors and reporters of the NYT are respected and get paid handsomely (profit from) for their distribution channel, the New York Times newspaper. You expect them to both demean the profession of journalism and waste their valuable time on 140-character secretions?

    If there was ever a time where Nietzsche’s observation was correct, this is it. “They vomit their bile and call it .” Those at The Times take on serious ideas objectively and that dictates fully-formed ideas not just observations lobbed over the transom.

    Hmm…. Maybe they should tweet. It’s not like they really hew to objectivity or eschew the cash.