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The New York Times' evolving social media strategy

Charles Miller

edits this blog. Twitter: @chblm

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The New York Times uses three principles when deciding how its journalists should use social media: do it strategically, be different, and strive for meaningful engagement with the audience.

That was the message from Liz Heron, social media editor of The New York Times and the keynote speaker at today's news:rewired conference in London.

"Don't be content to skate on the social media surface," she added.

Heron told an audience of British journalists and social media types that her paper now has 400 journalists using Twitter accounts, with 50 of them also using the new Facebook Subscribe feature that lets Facebook users receive their posts without having to 'friend' them. (It's what Facebook wants individuals to do now instead of using Facebook Pages, which are more for companies, causes etc.)

Heron said that persuading reporters it is safe to use their own Facebook accounts for the Subscribe feature could be "a hard sell", because it mixes the personal with the professional. She has had to "show people how to keep pictures of their children private".

The social media landscape has changed a lot in the past year and Heron's own role within Times had gone from evangeliser to fighting off demand from colleagues who wanted to get into social media.

At the same time she admitted to suffering from "platform fatigue" as more and more social media options become available. "How to have time to engage these new social platforms and still have time to see your friends and family?" is the new dilemma.

She mentioned Tumblr and Quora as being in the pending tray while she has been "thinking a lot" about rising star Pinterest.

Because of its massive subscriber base, Facebook remains a key platform. She is encouraging its use among two main groups of reporters: foreign correspondents, because three quarters of Facebook users are outside the US, and writers on the 'How You Live' desk.

For the latter, which charts changes in society, she found that, for instance, a question put to her Facebook subscribers on the subject of depression and students produced a great haul of "high-quality comments" that fed into a feature that one of her colleagues was writing.

Google+ is a new platform whose strengths, Heron said, look like being its ability to facilitate "deep discussions" together with the possibilities offered by Google Hangouts (discussed as a tool for journalism on this blog). 

Meanwhile, Twitter continues to find a more and more central role in the paper's interaction with its readers. So, for instance, through Twitter readers are invited to guide reporting in real time by asking for fact-checks on news stories or political speeches with a special hashtag. At the paper, a special team sets about answering the queries.

And on primary election nights, hand-selected tweets from readers are now put on the Times' homepage.

Asked about how reporters prioritise their time between social media and more conventional reporting, Heron said that for sophisticated users social media just becomes part of their process, and in many cases reporters are actually saving time because Twitter, for instance, can be a great - and efficient - source of new stories.

As to how all of this fits into the company's business model, Heron said that referrals to the Times' website from social media are strong. The Times has a online subscription model but it's more of "a fence than a wall", and all content linked to from social media is free.

Overall, Heron's account gave a powerful view of social media interaction for a big media organisation as being a sophisticated mix of 'push' - getting your content out there - and 'pull' - gaining access to new ideas and people.

Success is not measured in traffic numbers, said Heron. It's about "did we get something of journalistic value out of that interaction?"

Footage from the sessions at news:rewired is being filmed by the College of Journalism and will be posted on this website shortly. You can also follow the sessions during the day on the College of Journalism Twitter account.

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