Facebook in the Frontline (Part I)

Prashant’s note: The following article was printed in the latest issue of Correspondent, the bi-monthly magazine of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club. It is re-published here in full with the permission of the magazine and the author, Thomas Crampton, a former foreign correspondent who now helps companies develop social media strategies for Ogilvy across the Asia Pacific region. His blog, which is awesome, can be found here.

by Thomas Crampton

Three years ago my passion for social media caused me to leave what may be the greatest job in journalism, a Paris-based features writer for the International Herald Tribune and New York  Times. Now, I run a social media strategy across Asia-Pacific for Ogilvy & Mather, a marketing and communications firm.

This transition has given me insight into social media and the opportunities and challenges it presents to both individual journalists and media companies.

Spread across 19 Asian territories, our 100-person social media team is a specialist consultancy that helps companies in Asia use platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Sina Weibo and Renren for marketing, consumer research, internal communication, crisis management and trendspotting. Unable to break the writing habit I maintain a blog about social media and how it changes the political, economic and cultural landscape of Asia.

Claiming no ability to foretell the future of journalism or create a viable business model for newspapers, the two parts of my career ? foreign correspondent and social media consultant ? have given me a few strong views on the social media apathy of many journalists. For journalists, the advice is easy: Get over it and get on with it. Social media and the Internet have destroyed silos formerly dividing television, radio, news-wires, newspapers and magazines.

Every reporter and editor needs to know the basics of operating across all media, with mastery of at least a few. Instead of viewing this as a “more work”, view it as the greatest time to be a storyteller. There are now more tools at your disposal than for any previous generation of journalist.

If starting from a low base of knowledge, work within the comfort zone of a topic you know and start a blog, twitterfeed and video channel. As added incentive, take a Google test by doing a search for your byline. The links on the first page of search show your digital identity as most people will see it. That is fine if the links accurately represent the best of your work. With most journalists, however, they do not.

One friend, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, has top links that include an article on student-faculty dating written as an undergraduate for the Harvard Crimson. Fortunately, it is usually fairly easy to improve on digital identity and doing so will help bring any journalist up to speed on social media platforms.

The underlying principle is that social media platforms generally turn up very high in search results.

A reasonable first step: Using a name as near to your byline as possible, launch a blog on WordPress.com; create a Twitter handle and update your profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook. The more ambitious should start creating video content for YouTube and begin using mobile-based social networking services like Foursquare or Facebook’s Places.

The purpose of the blog is not to add working hours to the day, but create an outpost to be updated when possible.

The most important page is actually the “about” page, which every person whom you interview will check out. The initial postings on the blog should relate to the topic that you currently cover, so people can see your best work.

There is no need to write something new, just a few lines on why you wrote a particular story, why it is important or shows a larger trend and link the full version on your employer’s website.

The postings on the blog should be updated from time to time, but once a month or so is fine for reluctant bloggers.

For Twitter, use it first as a place to find people who are interesting to follow on the topic you cover. Many journalists find Twitter a great place to go for story ideas and experts worth calling. When updating Twitter, don’t tell the world what you had for breakfast. Nobody cares. Really. Instead, send links to web pages or articles that fall in line with the topic you cover.

With a blog presence, Twitter handle and updated profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook, you will be on your way to establishing a social media presence.

As for the unseen business problem social media will cause media companies, it goes back to the power of social media to make any person or company into a publisher.

The business side of media has moved from a world where media held a monopoly on all forms of news to an abundance of news.

In the early days, this made for a highly lucrative business model for newspapers in which publishers could charge consumers money for content and charge advertising for access to those same clients.

With money coming in from the readers and also from advertisers trying to reach those readers, newspapers were a good business.

The advent of the Internet was originally seen as a change of distribution model. Suddenly a newspaper publisher could reach a global audience without turning on a printing press.

On the negative side, however, publishers have found it difficult to get that audience to pay. Also, advertisers have been unwilling to pay so much for online ads. In other words, at the same time as consumers start to expect free content, advertisers are trading analog dollars for digital cents.

Looking forward, however, there is an even greater risk to publishers as companies begin to harness social media platforms to connect directly with their customers.

With even a relatively modest portion of their marketing budget, a company can become an online media company. As they realize they can reach audiences on their own terms, companies become reluctant to pay a premium for advertising.

Don’t think about a crass infomercial, think about a documentary related to the company’s theme of optimism, a video on household design tips from a decoration shop or a detailed white paper on tough business problems.

This dynamic will increasingly put non-media companies in competition with media companies. Both are producing content intent on attracting people’s time and engagement.

The problem for the media company is that the creation and distribution of content is a business model while a non-media company sees it as a loss-leader. The media company aims to sell what the non-media company will give away for free.

What does this mean for the journalist? It will prove an increasing challenge for newsrooms to support their budgets through traditional-style journalism structures. This poses a real danger for open society if we cannot financially support an institution of self-critique.

There is some good news, however, in that social media and Internet platforms open new avenues for self-expression and storytelling.  The structures in which the next generation of journalists earns their living will adapt to the changes.

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