First, our definition of the “social media team.”  The people handling social media in newsrooms might not strictly be a “team” and might be called something else —  “social engagement” or “audience development,” for instance. These teams might be comprised of one full-time person or a number of people who also have other newsroom duties.  For expediency, we’re using the term “social media team” generically in this report.

Our 25-question survey was offered through various channels to people who lead  social media in newsrooms. Fifty-nine people representing newsrooms of all types and sizes completed the survey. Many respondents did not want to be named in this report due to the sensitivity of their comments and, in some cases, their newsroom’s rules about speaking to the media. We also conducted interviews with dozens of experts and practitioners, and studied academic research on the topic. In addition, a group of knowledgeable reviewers provided input for early drafts of this report. (Their names appear in the acknowledgements section.)

Taken together, the information we gathered reveals a sobering picture of how social media teams operate today, and why.

There’s no question that some individuals and newsrooms are working creatively and diligently to retool their social media efforts, and with some success. At the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Glen Luke Flanagan was hired as digital content manager after working as a crime and public safety reporter at two other newspapers.

There’s no question that some individuals and newsrooms are working creatively and diligently to retool their social media efforts, and with some success.

While once a traditional social media role, it’s now undergoing changes as part of the news organization’s “2.0 initiative,” says Flanagan.  The strategy focuses on adding shareable digital elements to online stories; this story that included a police audio file had a reach of about 140,000. And this Pulitzer-prize winning story posted by a reader to the “Data is Beautiful” sub-Reddit prompted thousands of comments.

Marianne Graff, an assistant assignment editor at the Skagit Valley Herald, also assists with social media efforts in the newsroom. She’s tried using better strategies to select the 10 or so stories her staff posts per day to Facebook, and has encouraged the use of Twitter more for conversation and less for links.  “We’ve grown our Facebook following by 42 percent” in 18 months, Graff says.

And ProPublica created a position in which a reporter uses social media and “the power of the crowd” to find stories and help spread them throughout the newsroom.

But in general, our study found that a typical newsroom social media operation is largely unprepared — in structure, training and resources — to address urgent problems in journalism: the misinformation explosion and the decline of trust. Small to mid-size legacy print newsrooms appear most at risk, but newsrooms of all types and sizes face at least one or more of the issues we found:

  • Budget cuts and time constraints are hampering training on current best practices in social media.

  • There’s a tendency to focus on increasing the number of “followers” and content referrals from platforms, rather than thinking more deeply about content that can increase  knowledge and engagement among those followers.

  • While social media users struggle with the growing problem of  misinformation on social media platforms, the problem is largely unaddressed in many newsrooms.

  • Particularly in legacy print newsrooms, the culture still favors traditional reporting, leaving social media teams sometimes feeling removed from day-to-day journalism.

In this report, we examine each of these issues, how they impede efforts to improve trust and accountability, and what newsrooms can do to address and overcome them.

Training and qualifications: Gaps at all levels

Perhaps a leftover practice from the days when editors weren’t sure of the value of social media, some newsrooms still categorize social media jobs as “entry level”  or nearly so.  It’s a practice that puzzles experienced social media professionals.

“In a news environment, social media is the most grueling job in the newsroom,”  says Elyse Siegel, an audience development expert who’s worked at Huffington Post and now is managing editor at Swirled.

“It’s bizarre that people think this is an entry level position,” says Rubina Fillion, audience engagement director at The Intercept and a former social media editor at The Wall Street Journal. “That indicates managers think it has to do with age, and that is not accurate.” As an adjunct journalism professor, Fillion says she recognizes that just because someone is a “digital native” doesn’t mean he or she has a solid understanding of social media platforms and strategy.

One-third of API’s survey respondents said their team members had two or fewer years of experience.  A check of recent job postings for social media teams turned up job descriptions that highlight these requirements:

  • “Two years of social media experience in digital/editorial publishing.”
  • “Experience building an audience on Facebook and Twitter.”
  • “Experience using analytics to track audience growth.”
  • “College degree OR minimum 1 year relative experience in the field required.”
  • “Ability to work with a multitude of people and personalities while maintaining a professional work environment.”
  • “You must be flexible and able to work a variety of shifts including days, nights, weekends, and holidays.”

When people are hired directly out of college, or almost so, there’s a related problem: The lack of high-quality social media instruction in many college journalism programs.

“Simple things such as not being able to write a headline or lede have been commonplace with interns and new hires straight out of college. Social journalism? Forget it!” says a survey respondent who works in social media for a 45-person newsroom.

It’s bizarre that people think this is an entry level position. That indicates managers think it has to do with age, and that is not accurate.

About 87 percent of our survey respondents said fewer than half of their team members studied social media in college. And only 37 percent said all team members have a degree in journalism.

Past practices of hiring less-experienced people for social media teams are exacerbated by a lack of training, primarily due to decimated newsroom budgets over the past decade.

“I have been able to get some training on things like social video, post optimization, etc. because I sought it out on my own initiative, my own dime, and my own time,” says a social media producer who works for a large international news organization.

About half of survey respondents said they had attended outside training such as conferences or workshops. A majority of survey respondents said they had received at least some internal or “on the job” training.

“We hold regular social newsgathering training for the news division and don’t allow access to our internal social newsgathering tool unless that training has taken place,” said Dennis Powell, senior producer for multimedia newsgathering at ABC News.

At a Detroit television station, consultant visits and internal trainings are held quarterly, said Dustin Block, digital executive producer at WDIV.

“We have learned DIY-style,” said a social media team member at a legacy print magazine. The team’s manager, she said, is “primarily self-taught” and has attended Online News Association conferences to learn new skills.

About a third of our survey respondents said their teams are led by a full-time social media, engagement or digital editor. While some social media producers have been dispersed throughout the newsroom, some said that a team structure led by an experienced manager is more effective.

Says one social media manager in a mid-size newsroom in the northeast U.S.: “You need to make a case that [managing a social media team] is a full-time job. I’m trying to make a case every day for it. …I’ve told my editor, look, [the social media team] gets 90,000 visits every day. There’s not reporter who can do that.  Someone needs to be focused on inbound traffic.”

Team duties and strategy: A dated, fractured system

Many social media teams have grown in size over the past few years, according to survey responses and interviews. However, there’s a major caveat: They’ve been given many more duties, and some of those duties have little to do with social media.

Since November 2008, news publishers have lost about 44 percent of their staff, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In those newsrooms, specialization and focus sometimes take a back seat. Today’s social media team members find themselves publishing newsletters, working as web producers, monitoring comments, helping with video production and covering part-time reporting beats, among other responsibilities.

Today’s social media team members find themselves publishing newsletters, working as web producers, monitoring comments, helping with video production and covering part-time reporting beats, among other responsibilities.

“We have one online person and some reporters and photographers who occasionally tweet or Facebook,” said the managing editor of a northeastern newsroom. “Our staff is less than 20 percent of what it was in 1990, when the internet was a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. We have way too much to do with way too few people.”

Layoffs and a resulting reconfiguration of the social media team meant a bigger workload and little coordination at one large midwestern newsroom.  “We’re just keeping up with the day to day,” says a digital editor there. “I have only two hours at the end of the day to do social media.

Here’s how one social media team member described the arrangement in her large newsroom:

“The three of us who do social media full-time are also responsible for curating and troubleshooting our mobile app, monitoring the wire, answering phone calls from customers, searching for user-generated content during breaking news and coordinating requests for retweets from [other newsroom] accounts.”

Some newsrooms have handled the decline in staffing/increase in tasks by parceling out social media duties to the entire staff. Others have handed over responsibility for visual social media platforms — primarily Instagram and Pinterest — to photography staffs. In some newsrooms owned by major chains, a corporate or regional team shares social media duties.

At the 10-person Skagit Valley Herald in Washington, social media was once handled by one person. Now, it’s “more of a team effort and sometimes a competition,” says reporter Kera Wanielista. “Each reporter/photographer also has their own professional Twitter/Facebook pages.”

The fractured responsibilities and lack of staff can lead to a one-track mission: posting links and counting clicks.

“A newsroom that’s lost more than 40 percent of its staff in one year leaves little time to do more than post links,” said a social media staffer in a mid-sized Pennsylvania newsroom.

And according to our survey responses, that’s often what happens. We asked respondents to rank their activities in order of frequency, and by far the most prevalent function of social media teams is posting links to stories, photos and videos — followed by constant monitoring of traffic.  Dealing with misinformation was next-to-last.

The respondents also reported minimal interaction with 2016 election coverage. About a quarter of respondents said their role in 2016 election coverage was “not important;” 49 percent said it was “somewhat important.” Only 27 percent said it was “very important.”

In newsrooms where small staffs are overwhelmed and responsibilities are dispersed, building a strategy or a consistent voice is elusive.

A digital editor at a 20-person southern U.S. newspaper recalls: “At one point, reporters were instructed to post their own stories to the company’s Facebook page, but that made for bad strategy because there was not a cohesive plan around what was being posted and when. …The big obstacle is that social media is not a full-time job for any of our team members, so each of them are driven away by other responsibilities. We need a full-time team leader who can oversee strategy.”

A lack of strategy, or one that is critically outdated, “is going to be the downfall” of newsroom’ social efforts, says Elyse Siegel.

“I don’t see a lot of strategy; it’s push push push [content],” says Siegel. Social media should not be “just dissemination. Who’s your target audience and what do you want to grow?” A focus on building trust, correcting misinformation, tapping into influential audiences — those goals “should dictate where you’re investing resources,” said Siegel.

Newsroom culture: Silos still exist

A decade after the introduction of Twitter and Facebook into newsrooms, how to move social media ahead can often be a challenge of timing. In some places, there remains a lack of appreciation for the journalism potential of social media and a lack of knowledge about the skills and strategy needed to leverage it. In others, that desire may exist but not the capacity. There can also be unevenness: an interest at some levels of management but resistance elsewhere in the newsroom that can frustrate the most innovative people.

One social media team member said about a recent team leader: “His leadership in social media was so far ahead of the curve that it was dismissed as frivolous during his tenure.”

In some newsrooms, it’s clear that social media teams still are seen as digital paperboys who drop hyperlinks onto digital doorsteps. One newspaper chain calls its social media teams “distribution systems.”

There are others, however, where understanding social platforms are integral to the way content is created in the first place. The Washington Post’s digital managing editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz recently told the American Society of News Editors conference that editors examine what kind of story will do well in Facebook versus Twitter versus Instagram, for example.

Training in how to grow and measure traffic was by far the top response when social media teams were asked by API, “If you could learn more or get training about one specific topic related to your job, what would it be?”

Still, that focus on metrics can get in the way of efforts to listen to audiences. Says one social media professional about her recent role in newsrooms: “My work in social media always felt somewhat removed from the rest of editorial; like the writers were operating independently and my job was to catch and promote as much of their content as I could. We didn’t feel integrated.”

Another respondent at a small New England television station recalled her staff trying to work more directly with reporters — not entirely successfully. “Too many reporters are used to doing traditional journalism and like to stay in that routine,” she said. Other respondents noted an unwillingness by some reporters and editors to try anything outside of their “comfort zone.”

About a third of respondents credit a single team member with driving the success and initiatives of the social media team.

And even social media team members at a forward-thinking, digital-only news operation in Washington, D.C., expressed apprehension about approaching reporters with story questions, ideas and social strategy.

A lack of involvement by top editors in social media operations was clear in survey responses. About a third of respondents credit a single team member with driving the success and initiatives of the social media team. Only 15 percent of respondents say that top newsroom leaders are responsible for that success.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is debatable: Respondents also cited top management as roadblocks. When asked about obstacles to social media innovation and success, one typical response was “editors who aren’t open to ideas and feedback that feels foreign to them,” from a social media editor for a mid-size newsroom in the western U.S.

In a recent American Press Institute study of newsroom management, about 46 percent of managers said they felt “very comfortable” using social media.  The rest said they felt less comfortable or didn’t use it in their jobs at all.

Trust, facts and engagement: Soft response to hard problems

Knowing when and how to engage audiences — particularly during a contentious election — is tricky, and newsroom social media teams realize it. When survey respondents were asked to name “one specific activity you’d like your social media/engagement team to begin doing, or do more of,” the overwhelming top choice was engaging directly with audiences.

And when asked what training their teams needed, how to better engage audiences was No. 2 on the wish list.

In the absence of training, time and resources, a common response to the problem of misinformation is no response. That’s significant, because in the API survey, 56 percent of respondents say they encounter misinformation every day, up to several times a day. The others said it was once a week or less.

Knowing when and how to engage audiences — particularly during a contentious election — is tricky, and newsroom social media teams realize it.

None of the newsrooms reported a strategy for communicating with audiences who shared “fake news” and misinformation or mischaracterized the news organization’s own reporting.

“We typically don’t get involved” with people who post misinformation, said one newsroom manager, echoing a sentiment from many respondents to our survey.

“We are told not to engage with commenters or Twitter accounts at all,” said another respondent, whose newsroom has 20 Twitter accounts. Only the most egregious behavior will result in banning.

During the 2016 elections, one newsroom’s response to questions and comments about coverage was to post on Facebook “how to write a letter to the editor.”

About one-third of respondents said they try to correct misinformation on a regular basis. Two-thirds, however, said they “never” or sporadically make attempts to correct the misinformation.

“Sometimes it is not worth the argument, and we want to try to avoid getting in pissing matches with people,” said one respondent.

“People troll us all the time; we’re a polarizing organization. We largely ignore it and focus on our mission,” said a social media manager for a radio newsroom.

“Post-election, we see several ‘fake news’ comments in our Facebook posts a day. The trend is that these commenters are replying this way to anything that they don’t like or agree with,” said a social media manager at a large legacy-print organization. “The majority of these comments are unfounded. If we were to see a valid complaint or criticism, we would respond.”

Julia Haslanger, an audience engagement consultant at Hearken Inc. and a former Wall Street Journal engagement editor, points to several obstacles in interacting with audiences: “lack of time, resources, support, training and best practices, etc. … [M]any people with audience-centric titles are still spending the majority of their time and energy helping their news organization meet its business goals.”

A social media team that isn’t structured to hear and respond to audiences is not only an impediment to top-quality journalism, it’s a business problem too. Social media has been a life raft to newsrooms struggling to reach new audiences in an increasingly news-soaked society. But what happens when those platforms are corrupted and co-opted by misinformation? Content created by professional newsrooms also become untrustworthy. And newsrooms that are seen as irrelevant will find it tough to survive.

A social media team that isn’t structured to hear and respond to audiences is not only an impediment to top-quality journalism, it’s a business problem too.

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