Between Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and all the other social media sites out there, it’s a surprise we find time to eat, sleep and breathe. And whether you’ve been using these tools for years, are a newbie dipping your toe in the new technology pool or find yourself just plain intimidated about jumping into the world of online networking and 140-character chatter, there‘s always something new to discover.
So we turned to Jennifer Preston, who served as the first social media editor at the New York Times and is currently a reporter for The Lede, the newspaper’s breaking news blog, where she uses social media to report national stories. We asked her for advice on everything from how to get started using social media to how to keep it from taking over your life. An edited version of the interview follows.
MORE: What sort of “reinvention” was involved in taking on the social media editor position at the Times?
Jennifer Preston: I left reporting and covering politics in 1999, when my twins were in elementary school, to take a newsroom management position as deputy to the assistant managing editor for news administration . . . It was a great job opportunity and it also allowed me to work regular hours, with nights and weekends off. Reporters work pretty much all the time, which can be tough when you want to be around for Halloween and for soccer games. I stayed in that job six years. Then I was asked to oversee four Sunday suburban weekly sections. I loved that job, and did it for about three years, until the sections were folded in 2009. My twins were then juniors in high school, so I decided I wanted to go back to reporting.
But Jon Landman, the deputy managing editor, asked me if I would take on the role of social media editor. The idea was to put a veteran journalist into the job to help figure out the value of social media for our journalism and our journalists. I was not on Twitter. I was barely on Facebook. I did not own a smartphone. I had what my colleague David Carr told me was a “mom” cell phone. I rarely used text messaging except to type “NO” when I would get requests from my kids for money or the car. I knew very little about digital technology, but I did know a lot about journalism. And as a longtime journalist, I was confident that I could learn a new beat and what I needed to know by talking to as many people as I could and by reading and researching—and using the tools myself.
It did require a major “reinvention,” which I consider a gift. I don't know if I would have taken a deep dive into the space without being asked to help figure out the value for our newsroom and to be an evangelist for the use of social media for our journalists.
MORE: What were some of the biggest lessons you learned in the position?
JP: The importance of determination, being resilient and having a sense of humor. I had to learn the tools publicly. That was really hard. Every mistake I made, every broken link I shared became fodder for people to ridicule me in a blog post. Since I did not have a smartphone when I began, I could not immediately respond or fix my mistakes. That prompted my 16-year-old son, who had an iPhone, to open up a Twitter account so he could catch my mistakes for me when I was not online and have my back.
Even though some people took pleasure in pointing out my foibles when I started using social media, I also learned that people are incredibly kind, helpful and generous. I have learned how to use these tools from other people who use them. I have met the most amazing people from all over the world, and that would not have been possible without Twitter and Facebook.
MORE: You're now back as a full-time reporter. Do you miss the social media editor gig?
JP: I gave up reporting when my kids were young because I personally found it very difficult to cover politics, campaigns and breaking news with two little ones and a husband who is also in this business. I promised myself I would return to reporting when the kids went off to college. They set off in September 2010.
As social media editor, I was in a department-head role without a staff, learning about these tools, delivering training, developing strategy, conducting experiments with using social media to cover the Detroit Auto Show, and applying lessons learned from that experience to cover Fashion Week in New York, breaking news stories like the Haiti earthquake, and other big stories, like the World Cup. I was doing a lot of posting on the main accounts myself.
At the end of 2010, when we were merging the print and digital newsrooms, I recommended that we decentralize social media responsibilities so that our section editors and department editors owned the conversation taking place around their content, rather than a single social media editor who does not have a staff. Our social media team is now part of the interactive news group, where they have access to tools to help support our desks, and they have done some really amazing projects in the last year.
I asked to go back to reporting. Because I knew how to use these tools and monitor the conversation taking place, I proposed the social media beat, to write about how social media is changing just about everything. I was lucky, because one of the first stories I wrote was about the role that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube played in the uprising in Egypt.
MORE: Has social media changed the way you report?
JP: Yes. There has been an unprecedented amount of user-generated content created in the last couple of years, with so many people posting videos, photos and updates, so I am now in a new role, trying to tell breaking news stories and other stories using content I find on social media. It is reinvention time again.
MORE: Did you ever think social media would become a newspaper beat? And with the constantly evolving nature of it, how do you foresee it changing?
JP: It was a great beat in the last year or so, since I had an opportunity to write about the role of social media in the Arab spring and how it is changing the way we eat, love and pray. But I don't think that newspapers need a social media reporter. Every reporter needs to understand and report how social media is changing the landscape on her or his beat, because social media is changing everything.
MORE: You just started in a new role at the Times.
JP: I joined Rob Mackey and David Goodman on The Lede blog, our breaking news blog, using social media to report stories taking place around the country. For example, I covered the [recent] tornadoes that tore through the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Instead of calling the local fire and police departments, I told the story on The Lede with content created by users on social media platforms: I used posts on Twitter, amazing videos that ordinary people captured and posted on YouTube and updates they made on Facebook. I also shared with our readers some of the great work that was being done by the Dallas Morning News and local television stations there.
MORE: How should older women respond to social media pressure? Give in? Ignore it? Can we afford to?
JP: I don't think that women can ignore social media. By not tuning in, people run the risk of missing out on important information from their friends and family. And everyone with children must learn these tools so that they can be on top of what their children are doing and sharing online.
MORE: What are the dangers for women when it comes to using social media—does putting too much online just give potential employers fodder for not hiring us?
JP: Privacy needs to be a concern for everyone, whether you are a teenager or an adult. I think many of us are grateful that Facebook and Twitter were not around when we were in our teens and early twenties. I certainly would not want some of the more memorable moments of my youth captured on video and posted for all to see in real time or 20 years later.
So I would recommend that most people button up their Facebook settings unless they are using their Facebook page primarily for professional purposes. I am also not crazy about sharing geolocation information with these platforms.
Even with the highest privacy settings, you still run the risk of having one of your friends sharing content that you posted with their network. Then it can just end up out there to be found. So remember, nothing online is private. As a reporter, I can tell you that it is possible to find pretty much whatever information people post online, whether it is a review of a hotel on Trip Advisor or a comment submitted on an online newspaper site, as well as updates, photos and videos shared on social media platforms. There are now tools that display what YouTube videos you like or shared, and what you listen to on Pandora.
MORE: Employers are checking out that info too.
JP: Surveys show that 75 percent of employers conduct Google and social media searches on prospective employees. There's a company called Social Intelligence that I wrote about last August that conducts deep web searches of prospective employees on behalf of employers, looking back at someone's online history for seven years. And people have lost job opportunities because of photos and remarks they made online.
That said, women need to be mindful that one of the most effective ways to find work is to have and maintain an online presence, starting with a LinkedIn account. For many jobs, it is vital that women embrace digital technology and learn how to use these tools so that they can stay relevant in their current role or move up in their organization. That means people need to figure out how to present their so-called personal brand online. For most people, that begins with a LinkedIn account. That's the first place many employers look when they are searching for candidates or considering people for a position. Social media and blogs also provide women with an enormous opportunity to showcase their expertise or to help find prospective clients or employers.
MORE: How can women shut down social media during off-hours so we don’t feel like we're working 24/7?
JP: We all need to set boundaries between our personal and professional lives and to manage expectations about when we are available and when we are not. If you have a boss or a colleague who sends you non-urgent email or direct messages on Twitter about work over a weekend, don't answer until late Sunday night or early Monday morning. It is important for us to figure out how to make smartphones, social media, Skype and all of these great new tools work for us. We don't work for them.
I remember that a couple of days after I was named social media editor, I didn't post anything on Twitter because I had taken a day off to help my twins get ready for their junior prom. I had to explain the next day why I didn't post any updates that day or respond to people's inquiries . . . As my mother often reminds me, don't get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life. And I would say the same goes for social media: Don't get so busy being social online that you forget to be social in real life.
MORE: You wrote a recent piece for the Times on how women are retraining themselves in social media. What social media skills do employers expect applicants to have today?
JP: Of course, it depends on your field. But, as I noted in that piece, it is important for people looking for a job to maintain an online presence that presents them in a favorable light. I interviewed a terrific woman in her forties with deep marketing and senior communications skills and years of experience in the fashion industry. She was returning to the workplace after a couple of years and bolstered her already impressive resumè with a new layer of social media skills she acquired from various online programs. She said she felt that the landscape had changed so much in a couple of years that it was vital for her to bring knowledge about how to use social media and measure its effectiveness in order to land a new job.
MORE: Do you recommend getting social media training?
JP: Yes. I do recommend that people take advantage of the many online opportunities available through universities and online learning websites like Mediabistro.
MORE: Clearly marketers, retailers and journalists need to know social media, but what are some other careers that should also be taking advantage?
JP: There is so much content being pushed onto social media platforms that almost anyone, in any field, can find useful sources and relevant information that can help them. For example, if you are a research scientist and can't travel to a conference, you can probably follow the conversation on Twitter and get links to presentations by finding out the hashtag that is being used. There are some fields, of course, where using social media is tricky. I think that it can be very tricky for teachers, for example, and I wrote a story last December about how school boards across the country were looking at putting in social media policies to help provide guidance for educators. While these tools are enormously powerful in the classroom and can help teachers engage with students, they can also present problems for teachers sharing information about their private lives.
MORE: Finally, what's your biggest piece of advice for women just starting out with Twitter, LinkedIn or other social media services?
JP: You can't learn how to use these tools without using them. So find a friend to help you get started and dive in. For Twitter, I would recommend three steps. After setting up an account, the most important thing to do is to figure out who to follow and what accounts will bring you the most value. After watching for a few weeks how people use Twitter, figure out what you want to say on it. Why are in you in the space? What is your goal? Then start sharing links and retweeting Twitter posts that you find interesting and that support your goal. Remember, always bring value. Listen. And when you engage with people on Twitter, be social. Remember your good manners. Be generous. Be kind.
People in the social space—and people you meet at social media workshops and online programs—are very generous. Ask, and they will help you. Once you learn your way around, you will help the next person climbing onboard.