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.