A whole new ‘social media’ world

Social media sites are quickly tearing down traditional barriers between creators and consumers of news and information, according to a group of Canadian media persons.

In the past, journalists would be the sole arbiters of what information was newsworthy enough to be published, noted Andrew Coyne, national editor for Macleans Magazine.

With social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, that decision is no longer just the prerogative of editors and writers, he said. “Anyone who has access to the Web can potentially publish what they deem to be news.”

Coyne was a participant in a panel titled Traditional Media Meets Social Media held as part of Social Media Week 2010 in Toronto.

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Traditionally, Coyne noted, journalists were also the folk who investigated events and tried to interpret them for the readers.

Now, with a multitude of online forums, anyone can post and share their take on current events and issues.

The emergence of consumer-generated content has placed extreme pressure on traditional news outlets to win back viewership, said another panelist, Shirley Brady, community editor for New York-based BusinessWeek online magazine.

“Many print publications are trying to get a handle on social media and somehow create an online presence,” said Brady, who also used to write for Time Magazine.

But a huge challenge for organizations seeking to make a transition is how to monetize their online presence, according to Mathew Ingram, blogger and former communities’ editor for the Globe and Mail newspaper.

“After all these years, nobody seems to know how to do it right.”

An example of “not doing it right”, he suggested, was the New York Times’ recent decision to begin charging readers for its online content.

In an online world where consumers can pick and chose free content, Ingram doubts this made sense. “I think it was a sandbagging move.”

“They’re trying to stave off the flood and hoping to get money out of it,” said Ingram, who is currently senior writer for GigaOM an emerging technology analyst firm.

According to Coyne though, it’s very difficult to predict what online readers would pay for. They’re a fickle bunch, he said. Some would spend money on virtual goods that don’t exist in the real world.

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Coyne said he himself was sort of an accidental blogger. But it was during his initial forays into blogging that he realized the power of social media

He was on leave in the U.S. when the 2004 federal sponsorship scandal broke out in Canada. Frustrated that he couldn’t comment on it as he normally did, Coyne decided to blog about the issue.

“I’m proud to claim that I coined the name Adscam for the scandal.”

Coyne said he asked his blog readers to vote on an appropriate name for the scam. “I put in Abscam as a candidate and luckily most readers liked it.”

Today when some organizations have a difficult project or problem, they resort to crowd sourcing or asking the online community to contribute their knowledge on the area. Depending on the arrangements, the contributor either does it for free or is paid financially if the suggestion is used.

Coyne said journalists can use online communities to test the waters on what issues are touching a nerve with the public.

“Very often there is a tendency towards group think,” he said. “Journalists may think a certain issue needs to reported on but the public leans another way. That issue is not necessarily what people want to read about.”

Brady of BusinessWeek agrees. “By listening to conversations happening on Twitter or Facebook you can get a sense of topics that matter to certain audiences.”

This technique, she said, could also help other businesses that want to know more about their customers’ tastes and preferences.

Ingram of GigaOM recalls that one Globe and Mail reporter on assignment in India made good use of Twitter to locate a photographer who specialized in a certain field.

“She had put in the request for information to Globe and Mail over a week ago but got no response. The moment she put out her query on Twitter, she got the person’s contact information within an hour,” Ingram said.

Not everyone’s cup of tea

Although he champions it, Brady says social media is not for everyone.

“Many journalists take to it like a duck to water, but others are just not comfortable with it,” she said.

This is because many social networking media require a certain degree of “openness” not found in traditional channels.

“You have to open yourself more to your readers because they demand more personal connection with the blogger. Not everyone can do that.”  

One Social Media Week attendee agrees.

“Many C-level executives are struggling because they don’t have the temperament or communication style for the medium,” noted Sheila Goldgrab, principal at Goldgrab Leadership Coaching Inc. a Toronto-based executive coaching firm.

Many clients seek Goldgrab’s help in using social media to develop their online brand. She said too often top executives write a blog but their language reads like memos to their employees.

“Your blog can’t come out sounding like you’re talking down to your readers. Apart from useful information, they crave personality and connection,” she said.

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