How Social Media has Shaped for Journalists Over the Years


There was Media and it wasn’t social!

In May 2009, I had not even heard about Twitter. I was on Facebook, but to me then, it was only to be checked for status updates of my meagre friends when I was terribly bored. No one had heard about Reditt or Pintrest and Google + was still years away. Sometimes I would see some old classmates on Orkut and exchange messages that a lazy afternoon allows you to. A month later, in June 2009, when I finally signed up on Twitter, I took a cursory look and then promptly blocked a couple of followers because I was worried they would invade my privacy. Yep, such was my abysmal understanding of the medium that I did not even check my account for months.

Four years later, in February 2013, as a part of an editorial team that was re-designing dna (a newspaper that is part of the Zee Media Corp stable) I suggested that we start using Twitter handles as the byline for reporters and writers. From denial to acceptance, I had travelled a long distance to appreciate the importance of social media for journalists and journalism.

The redesign of dna, carried out by the supremely talented Nitin Tuse was a success and we were probably the first media publication to start using Twitter handles as a byline. It was followed up by training sessions for our reporting teams in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Bangalore. Our then online editor, Mahafreed Irani, full of great ideas, energy and focus travelled with me as we introduced our colleagues to the advantages of social media. The medium was new, exciting, perhaps overwhelming, but strangely addictive. The spurt that dna witnessed in network traffic, Facebook likes and Twitter followers encouraged us.

Is it Print Vs Digital? Really?

While holding these training workshops for my colleagues in dna and Zee News, I would be frequently quizzed about the need to be on social media. They were already running around gathering stories, writing and editing them and also filing separate copies for the Net edition. Why did they have to now tweet or post updates on Facebook? No one was paying them anything for either acquiring a smart phone with a data plan, and the salaries weren’t exactly the highest in the land. What do you do when you have such excellent arguments thrown at you in the middle of a training session?

Well, you pause and you think. Everything they said was true. Expensive phones and data plans, tight salaries and loads of work every day to fill the omnivorous news pages.  So this is what I told them.

Why are we in journalism? To tell stories that are read, heard, seen and discussed. To see stories inform and empower our readers and viewers and make an impact. If so, shouldn’t we be using mediums where our audiences are? And shouldn’t we use means and tools to find audiences and maximize our reach? How do we make our presence felt in markets, where the physical product was not available, but had readers desperate for credible sources of information?

Look at the growth of smartphone users in India, who can use data services to access your news. In 2013 there were 67 million smartphone users which has now nearly doubled to 117 million. What does that say about where the audience is?

Most seemed to be partly or wholly convinced about the argument. But this was just stage one of a longer, more nuanced discussion on the need for a social media presence.

Engaging We, the people

For many of us, as professional journalists, the news had become an act devoid of any real engagement with the people who really mattered to us – the readers. It had become an echo chamber where what we said came back as news to us. Evenings spent at the press club would ensure that arguments made over a drink emerged as either news, or an opinion piece a few days later.

But here’s an obvious point that needs to be made. Why is social media gaining ground? This could be, perhaps, because social media connected people in a manner that we had not thought was possible. For starters, it was a social network for people to leap beyond geographical and time boundaries and speak to each other. It also democratised the flow of information. Here was a great opportunity to be heard and to hear. As our engagement on social media increased, it began to bring out fascinating new possibilities that propel societies into new stages of evolution. Did Twitter and Facebook play a role in the Arab Spring? Could commerce be driven by tweets and Facebook posts? Could news stories be broken on Twitter? And what happens to traditional print editions of the morning newspaper?

In 2012, when a senior Maoist leader was killed in a police encounter, I was getting quick updates from a source. I requested our then online editor Krishnakumar to get the dna Twitter handle to re-tweet my updates. Krishna went a step ahead and put my tweets in Storify and put up a post of sorts on the website. In some ways, it was a life-changing moment. The possibilities seemed endless then.

But every evolution brings confusion. In politically charged times, Twitter and Facebook are the new town halls for debate, arguments, scoring brownie points and on some days allow it to degenerate into a street fight.

As social media guidelines began to emerge in newsrooms, I saw great merit in the advice, “open the bottle, and close the twitter (account).”  Social Media also challenges us every day to question our inherent biases, claims of neutrality and the quality of our content. If you don’t believe me, take a look at a recent discussion on the use of Twitter that I read about recently.

So you think you can tweet?

Three scientists just developed an algorithm that can tweet better than most people can. At the heart social media lay algorithms that are constantly being updated, tweaked and changed to redefine ways in which people can connect.

The quiz is a product of the algorithm that was proposed in a paper written by scientists Chenhao Tan, Lillian LeeBo Pang  who wrote an algorithm that can predict which tweets will get more traction. But is that all there is to the use of social media? Codes can read, but can it be used to predict how human beings will connect with one another?

But Sendhil Mullainathan, a writer with The Upshot from The New York Times had an illuminating essay on what he thought about the algorithm and news.

Mullainathan pointed out a basic contradiction of any research that we grapple with every day. Co-relation, he argued, is not necessarily causation. He illustrates it with a fine example. The algorithm consistently shows that longer tweets get re-tweeted more often. But does that mean that every long tweet will get more re-tweets? As he points out, it was not the length of the tweet, but the ability to pack in more meaningful information into the tweet that helped it get more distribution than others.

But look at the possibilities that social media has opened up for us. Recently, Dr Anja Kovacs, program director of ‘The Internet Democracy Project’ took to Twitter to highlight a case of sexual harassment.

The Internet Democracy Project is part of the well regarded Mumbai-based NGO, Point of View (PoV).  For years PoV and its founder Bishakha Datta have looked at issues of women’s rights and their myriad and fascinating points of view. For Dr Kovacs, who has been working on issues of freedom of speech and how the internet impacts democracies, this was an innovative use to find empowerment and support within the social network. The next day the tweet was a story and helped push forward the boundaries of free speech and woman’s right to her space.

There are fascinating examples of what journalists are now doing with their tweets, Facebook posts or Pinterest. Recently, Shaun Walker, the Moscow correspondent of The Guardian led the coverage of the civil war in Ukraine with fascinating Twitter updates of Russian troops covertly transiting through Ukraine.

In another part of the world, as the war in Gaza raged, Gilad Lotan, the chief data scientist for @betaworks, New York, took tweets from Israelis and Palestinians to come up with fascinating findings. Twitter traffic, his mesmerising data visuals revealed, showed how Israelis and Palestinians had the very perceptions about the war and how deep the divide really was. Both groups were going to very different sources for news and only the Ha’aretz seemed to offer any meeting point between the two groups. Lotan’s post displays a remarkable new insight into a centuries-old conflict.

Engaging on social media

There are no definitive lessons on what is the best way to engage people on social media. It is like the new town hall. Some people will listen to you, and most won’t. There is noise and there is chaos.

But here are a few pointers that work for me:

  • Create value to your Sm profile – content is the key
  • Start conversations/ post links
  • Give information – do not seek publicity
  • Engage & debate, do not provoke
  • State views briefly, succinctly
  • Ensure the ‘headline’ of the tweet/post elicits curiosity
  • Know and understand your unique profile/image
  • Speak to a community that is specific to start with – politics, arts, culture, governance, media
  • Don’t be vague
  • Less opinion, more information

There are some good pointers available online as well. You could try looking at what Steve Buttry has to say about social media engagement. So look around for new platforms to engage people. Tried Medium, Reditt, Quora yet? Go ahead, give it a shot.

Complement, not compete

Does this mean that social media threatens what people call “Main Stream Media (MSM)?” I don’t think it is an issue at all. Social Media is not competing with MSM. Instead, it is complementing it and helping it find new ways to reach out to its audience. Sure, a story or two may break on Facebook, Quora or Twitter. But who breaks those stories consistently? Social Media whets the appetite for people to seek out new information. In the end, even those who started on social media, seek validation in MSM. This is because MSM invests in gathering and generating content. That is their business model. This has to be recognized and appreciated to understand how social and mainstream media complement each other.

At Hindustan Times we recognized this when we started work on framing our social media guidelines. We wanted it to impose as few restrictions on our journalists as possible. Instead, we hope it will enable them to reach out to their audience in a responsible and ethical manner every day.

But in this digital universe that journalists are now grappling with, there’s a new complexity that is being shaped by the argument that greater traffic to the website is the defining bench mark for success. So The Hindu released an advisory asking its journalists not to post content from other news organisations. From its point of view, it voiced the concern that their journalists were adding to the traffic of the competition while ignoring their own. This was followed by the revelation that the Times of India wants its journalists to maintain a separate account that will be owned and operated by the company while they are free to have their personal accounts with a rider. They can’t, a copy of the contract says, post any news links on their personal accounts.

In some ways, both news organisations are well within their right to enforce guidelines for their journalists. The journalists are always welcome to quit and leave if they don’t accept the diktats of their employers. But lost in the din of outrage is the real reason, in my view, why this will not work.

When you are in the social network, you bring uniqueness to your social media profile, which is your greatest asset. In my view, as a journalist you bring a certain expertise to the constant flow of information out there. By virtue of your access to the powers-that-be, or your years on the beat, you develop insights that helps your followers understand and consume the news. You are the curator in the museum of news. By making an attempt to homogenize the curator-journalists with such restrictive practices, you only end up denying your audience the variety they seek from the journalists they follow. In the long run, it will not work. If all bots could have their way, then algorithms could have ruled the world. But people like to interact with people, not automated or a closed group generating of mindless petabytes of information. There’s a reason why we emphasise on *social* in media. Let it remain so.