Google+ for Journalists — A Primer

If, like me, you’ve signed up to Google’s new social networking service Google+, you’ll be wondering how — if at all — it applies to your job; how it compares to existing social networking and/or micro-blogging services; and how best to use it.

As a result, and after a suggestion from Sara Hussein that I do so, I’ve put together this (hopefully useful) primer for journalists using, or interested in using, Google+. If there’s anything you think this primer is missing, drop me a line either via e-mail or in the comments below.

First off, if you have not yet received an invite to Google+ and would like one, let me know and I will send one to you.

And a little bit of self-pimping: You can find me on Google+ here.

NOTE: This post was updated on July 20, 2011 to incorporate remarks and concerns highlighted by the Committee to Project Journalists and the Future Journalism Project, both of which I missed in earlier readings.

The Basics

  1. What is it? Google+ is a (relatively) new social networking website which looks remarkably similar to Facebook but differs in several key ways, the vast majority of which are outlined in this infographic.
  2. How do I sign up? At the moment, you have to be invited to create a Google+ profile, but invites are plentiful (much like Gmail in its early stages). If you want one, let me know.
  3. Are there any particular differences from Facebook I should be aware of? Crucially, it is important you note that, unlike Facebook (but like Twitter or Tumblr), there is no requirement for two-way approval for a ‘friend request’. On Twitter or Tumblr, if I ‘follow’ Person X, I see all of their updates (unless they are on a protected account). On Google+, if I ‘follow’ Person X, all of their non-protected updates appear in my news-stream, and my updates are pushed to them, though they do not see them in their news-stream. If Person X wanted to see updates from me in such a situation, they could either follow me back, or click on the ‘Incoming’ link on the left sidebar.
  4. What about differences with Twitter? Google+ almost more closely resembles Tumblr than Twitter — there is obviously no character limit to your posts, and it is very easy to upload photos, videos and links to other content. Once posted, this content is up-front and easy to view, unlike Twitter, which has made non-text content more easily accessible with its latest update, but which remains lacking in this regard. Also, whereas Twitter offers only the option to protect your entire account, Google+ allows you to protect certain updates, so a newly-published article can be visible to the whole world, but a photograph from a family holiday can be restricted to a more private circle of contacts.

Why should journalists use Google+?

  1. The sooner you try it, the sooner you’ll figure it outJen Lee Reeves, Interactive Director of NBC’s mid-Missouri affiliate KOMU, notes on her blog that “very few newsrooms quickly jumped into Twitter or Facebook. Many are playing catch up.” Given it has the heft of Google behind it, there’s a good chance that Google+ will be at least a moderate success, so you can figure it out now and get to grips with it, or figure it out later and play catch up.
  2. It helps disseminate your content. If you’re a journalist, chances are that you want as many people to read as much of your content as possible. For this reason, the earlier you get on a new social network like Google+, the faster you can build up something of a following.
  3. It’s interesting. Or maybe that’s just me?

How can journalists and news organisations use Google+?

  1. Publish your content to a different audience. Like Facebook, you can post your content and receive feedback in the form of comments or ‘likes’ (or ‘+1s’ in the case of Google+), but Google+ makes it much easier to allow a wider audience to comment on it. Whereas on Facebook, comments and likes are going to come from your own pre-approved friends, anyone who is following you on Google+ can talk to you about your content. Obviously, this can be a good or a bad thing (if comments degenerate into vulgarity for example), but the fact that they have to comment via Google+ means it is a reasonable assumption that people will be somewhat restrained, in much the same way that Facebook’s blog comment system has seemingly lowered spam levels and made comment threads a little more civilised.
  2. Show some “behind-the-scenes” life with Hangouts. Once again, KOMU in Missouri is using Google+’s Hangouts feature (summarised here) to show TV viewers what the newsroom looks like ahead of the main nightly telecast, and again afterwards to discuss their reactions to the news. At the moment, this feature is somewhat limited, as only 10 users can be logged-on at once, but I would not be surprised if this increased in future (remember: Google made e-mail better by offering 1GB of storage, and now we have seven times that). It may well turn out that it never is, and this doesn’t work out, in which case you can always revert to CoverItLive, or something similar. (HT: Mashable)
  3. Set up different circles for different groups of contacts. It may very well be that, if you cover a particular beat, the contacts you’ve built up over your years of coverage are also on Google+, in which case you can set up different circles for different types of contacts — analysts, activists, officials, whatever. You could have one circle for everyone, so certain content is shared with anyone who wants to see it, and smaller circles for groups of contacts with more niche interests. Your contacts do not know what circle(s) you have placed them in, so you can be fairly honest in how you do this. In this way, you could post a request for information to a limited group, and have a more lively, deep discussion about news that you are all familiar with. (HT: Mediabistro)
  4. Engage with readers and viewers in non-news ways. Canadian broadcaster CBC runs a daily caption contest on their Google+ site — not everything has to be just about publishing content and then waiting for readers/viewers to respond.
  5. Find new contacts and/or those with different views. Twitter has introduced me to a bevy of people who I either did not know of, or knew but had never interacted with, who have helped me with my news coverage in my time in Baghdad. Google+ has this same potential with it’s follow and comment features.
  6. Find eye-witness photographs and video from the scene of a news event. If a follower happens to be at the site of a news event (say, a massive tornado) that you cannot attend, they could be encouraged to tag your Google+ profile so that you are instantly made aware that they’ve uploaded it. This could be very useful in situations where journalists cannot be physically present at the site of major news events (as was the case in Iran in 2009, for example). Given Google’s Picasa (which is integrated into Google+) is already a simple but robust photo-uploading platform, this removes the need for news organisation to create their own bespoke solutions. (HT: Mediabistro)
  7. Use Google Sparks to keep abreast of the topics you cover. In my limited playing with Sparks, it’s a little raw and not particularly pointed, but given it’s based on Google’s search result rankings and +1 results, it could well develop into a useful tool. For now, I’ll use it, but not give up on my RSS feeds just yet.
  8. Collaborate! This is by far the hardest thing to do as an old-world journalist (like myself). For years past, news organisations jealously guarded their information, but this is slowly changing. That does not mean I’ll be writing my next news article over the phone with colleagues at the Associated Press, but it does mean acknowledging they exist, and tipping my web-friendly hat to them (and others) when they publish good journalism. This also means collaborating with readers — meaning listening or watching for readers who provide interesting angles or insightful analysis, but also those who point out inaccuracies or mistakes.
  9. Show some depth of personality. Some (though by no means all) readers, followers and viewers, do like the journalists they interact with to show some life. Whether it be interests, articles that are of a different subject to your beat, or a witty remark, all of these are easier to share via Google+ than they are via Twitter, which is its chief competitor in this regard, I believe.

Concerns & Things to be aware of

  • Circles and their use: People who follow you cannot choose which circles they are in — this is both good and bad. For one, you get to choose which circle they go in, but if you have several news feeds, each with its own niche set of items, it can be a little difficult to configure. This may require asking them directly which of your available circles they would like to be added to.
  • The evolution of wall posts: Unlike Facebook, other people cannot post directly to your wall (it is unclear whether this will be implemented in future). Mediabistro recommends, in this case, posting a daily or weekly ‘What is on your mind’ post that followers can respond to.
  • Blocking or Censoring: A friend working for another news organisation in Beijing noted that there was some excitement for Google+ in China because, unlike Facebook and Twitter, it has not yet been blocked by the GFW. This may not last for much longer, however, as Google+ has apparently been blocked in at least one country. This will be worth monitoring as, like Facebook and Twitter in China, persistent use of Google+ in a country that blocks it may require that you pay for a VPN tunnelling client.
  • Data security: Google, like basically all companies that operate primarily on the internet, has had data security violations in the past of varying levels of concern, and this will be something to keep an eye on as increasing numbers of users sign up for Google+ (company co-founder Larry Page said on July 14 that the service had already received more than 10 million users). CPJ rightly points out that it is a good sign that Google+ runs on more secure HTTPS encryption, but like all things on the internet, one must assume that data security can be compromised, and reasonable precautions must be taken.
  • Personal identification: While, as CPJ highlights, Google is slightly more open-minded than Facebook when it comes to using one’s pseudonym or pen name as identification, it requires that a user’s gender be made public, which is an obvious concern, especially in countries where gender discrimination is widespread.

Some examples of journalists and news organisations using Google+

Additional reading

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