Picture this: you’re a journalist at a dinner party. All the guests have taken their seats, the wine glasses have been filled, and the obligatory compliments to the chef have been exhausted. Suddenly, there’s a lull in conversation. For one agonising moment the only sound filling the room is the host’s
Lighthouse Family CD Vivaldi’s Four Seasons CD. But what’s this? One of your quick-witted dining companions leans across the table and lets loose with that good old reliable icebreaker: “So, what do you do?”
You clear your throat. “Well, I work in the media,” you start. There’s a murmur of polite interest from your fellow guests; a few of them are leaning in with curiosity. You go for broke. “I’m a social media editor,” you say.
Silence. Uh-oh. Awkward turtle.
A few years ago, if a journalist told someone they were a social media editor, chances are they would be rewarded with a blank stare or a furrowed brow. Now, there are hundreds of them working in all manner of news organisations. Social media has become a core component of any digital strategy, whether it’s for newspapers, broadcasters, or big business.
But what does a social media editor do? Isabelle Oderberg is responsible for the Herald Sun’s various social media activities. A self-described “ambassador for the paper on social, and an ambassador for social to the paper”, Isabelle is constantly experimenting with new methods to drive traffic through social networks and work with the online community. I spoke with her to find out more about her role in the newsroom.
Isabelle, let’s see: you worked in the financial trade press in London, Reuters, Dow Jones, AAP; you were the founding news editor at the Business Spectator and you joined the Herald Sun as the deputy business editor. Today, you’re the newspaper’s social media editor. In fact, you’re touted as Australia’s first social media editor. For some, that might seem surprising because you’re got a wealth of business journalism experience under your belt, and yet you’ve made the transition to a sorts of “journalist-technologist” role. How did it come about exactly?
Well, the wires are actually renown for creating bespoke technology systems; part of what I did in London was liaising with the technology team at Dow Jones, and actually helping them create technology that would help journalists on the ground. I was on the spot news desk that was dealing with things minute by minute; we had to get headlines; if a press release is issued by the London Stock Exchange, we had to have our first headline up in under 25 seconds, if it was a major really. We were looking at technology that would help us identify the news in strange places, which is often buried. I have no technology qualifications as such but I’ve always been orientated in that direction, partly because I think growing up in Hong Kong, you’re in an expatriate situation – I lived in Hong Kong with my family when all my friends were moving to other countries, and we had to find cheap ways of staying in touch, using things like VoIP and that kind of thing. And then I moved to Australia and I had to find ways to keep up with Mum and Dad, when I was in boarding school here, and then I went to London for six years and I had to find ways of keeping up with everyone. So you had this double-barrelled kind of thing – underneath everything as a fundamental kind of basis – you had someone who was automatically orientated towards technologies that allowed me to stay in touch with my friends and family and news back home, and then in addition to that there’s this news wire background where I was helping create technologies that would allow us to do our jobs and identify news in murky situations quickly, and get them up and get them legible and digestible for an audience. I remember once the Internet went down at the Business Spectator and we were a web-based business, and I ran over to the IT desk screaming, “the Internet’s gone down, the Internet’s gone down; I can’t get onto Facebook” and everyone started laughing because the entire team thought I was devastated that I couldn’t be on Facebook. But it was a natural progression because I was always connected in that way. In terms of the technology I was developing in the UK, that was looking at it from a newsroom point of view and saying to the IT guys, “I’ll tell you what we need” and together we’ll come up with a way of making technology work for the journos. And like I said, I’ve always been interested in technology and reasonably – for somebody that has no qualifications in it – I’ve been able to navigate it fairly well. I have an aptitude for it. For me, it doesn’t seem like an unnatural progression.
Those navigation skills seem to have served you well; it brings us to the present, where it’s landed you the role of social media editor at the Herald Sun. But from one person that works with social media to another, I think many people still very wrongly assume it involves “just tweeting and posting to Facebook” – like an online administrator – but it’s more than that, isn’t it?
I think the most interesting part of social media, for me personally, is actually being able to identify news; to be able to track it backwards to where it came from, to be able to source it, and also being able to identify sources, and identify stories. I think that’s the most interesting aspect for me. Obviously, broadcasting it is the second stage of that. But actually, and the kind of news genesis phase, the very early phase, that’s where I get the most excited – when you can spot a story. I’ve always used it, I guess as an analogy I say, it used to be that a lot of journalists used to get their stories down at the pub, talking to people. To me, this is just a magnification of that culture. You can dip into people’s conversations, you can see what people are talking about, you can see what’s interesting to people and you can just listen. I think that gives us a lot of stories. The general public might not realise they’re talking about a potential story but I might watch a conversation on Twitter and say, “that’s a really interesting conversation” or “that’s a really interesting story”. Looking at it from a different point of view. And the technologies are getting better and better to be able to do that, in a much more sophisticated way – not just watching but also actively tracking virality and actively tracking what’s trending, and that sort of thing. Then you get to the next stage, where you’re working on a story and you need to find people that can talk to the subject, that are highly skilled, and social gives you a much better way to do that. Another example – I was doing a story about golf courses in China and I wanted to talk to somebody about turf management. And I thought, “how the hell do I know anybody that works in turf management for golf?” but I found someone using LinkedIn, whose only job it is was to maintain golf courses in China. I got a really expert view on it.
It’s interesting that you use the analogy of a pub, a room filled with a cacophony of noise. I’m just wondering, what sort of practices to you bring to bear? I don’t expect you to necessarily give away any trade secrets, but what do you do to cut down on that signal to noise ratio? How do you isolate the voices that are worth listening to, in your estimation, against the background of all the “rhubarb rhubarb”?
I think everyone’s worth listening to. I’ve had as many stories from Mr Joe Bloggs sitting in a suburb at his computer, or out in the sticks, talking about what interests him, all the way through to really high profile journalists talking about issues of the day. I think it’s worth listening to everyone. You never know where your next story is going to come from. Personally, I’m particularly interested in geographic locations and work with APIs because I’m interested in news that matters in Melbourne and Victoria. I find the geographic location work that I do with APIs really interesting. A really good example of that is how I found video recently of kids blowing up homemade bombs in their backyard, and through using geo-location I was then able to establish that it was taking place three blocks away in a suburb near me. That story went online and it got a huge response. That’s just one of the things that I’m particularly interested in. I just think that journalism’s as much about listening as it is about broadcasting and I think things like Twittter and Facebook are a good extension of this. When Justin Bieber was coming to town I joined a Bieber group on Facebook and they were much more clued in about where he was going to be, what his movements were, than any other journalist because these are people that are passionate about Justin Bieber. By joining that group I was able to get a much better idea of what was doing on and feed that into the news desk.
A couple of things spring to mind from those example. When you talk about things like geo-spatial tagging, when you talk about crowd-sourcing, when you talk about APIs – that’s common parlance for somebody in your position. How do you provide an interface between that technical terminology and the average journalist in the newsroom. I once read a great piece of advice to emerging journalists, and I suppose it’s apt in a social media sense as well. ‘Being a reporter was a bit like playing bass guitar,’ it says. ‘If you have fingers and a sense of rhythm, you can play the thing. But it takes lots and lots of practice and dedication to make music.’ What do you think it takes for journalists to really carry a tune on social media – to really do it right? It’s not just about being on Twitter and being on Facebook. It’s about learning how to use all those concepts that you just articulated; it’s grasping how they intersect and overlap, and work together; it’s how they bring together the building-blocks of the narrative. How hard is it to educate a journalist that may have a wealth of knowledge locked up in his or her brain to use social media in the way you’ve just been describing?
I think one of the fundamental problems that you find is that a lot of journalists say, “I don’t get it, I think it’s just lolcats, there’s no value in it.” Part of the challenge I faced when I first came on board was actually proving to people that it could result in big stories. I’ve done that. I won that war, or that battle, by showing people and finding my own stories and proving that it can be more than memes. You just have to decide how you want it to fit in and how you want to listen. I think that in my particular newsroom that is no longer the case. Everyone can see the value of it. It’s also the case that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Not everyone is going to be necessarily plugged into social. Not everyone gets turned on by Twitter. Not everyone can fit in. Not everyone gets the language. But they need to know at least how to orientate themselves around it. As long as you have a number of number of people in the newsroom that are plugged in, then the people that are plugged in – it’s not such a big deal, and not every single journalist is needs to be active on Twitter and not every single journalist needs to be active on Facebook. In terms of the technology translation, I think that you have to find a way. We’re communicators. It’s part of my job. I’ve been communicating my whole career with different audiences on different subjects. You have to find a way to communicate the ability of the technology and not necessarily get caught up in the wheels and the cogs, if you know what I mean. I was experimenting with Crowdmap and I can say, “this is a map that enables you to display social media in a geographic setting. In case of a typhoon or a cyclone or something like that, we can log photos and what people are saying on a map.” That’s all you have to say. You don’t have to say that you created incident reports on each tweet that comes in; you don’t necessarily have to share that detail. That really comes down to the person that’s executing the tool, or executing the product. You have to find a way to people in a way they understand. That’s part of your job as a social media editor. I see myself as kind of an ambassador for the paper on social, and an ambassador for social to the paper. I’m a representative.
You touched upon this notion of “getting it” and I think it’s something that’s really work unpacking. “Getting it” really means that people and practices have to change, doesn’t it? And that they have to continue to change? And I’m not just talking about social media; I’m talking about online journalism in general. I’m wondering – how do you see this change being managed, and who assumes responsibility? One criticism you often hear leveled against academia is that they’re out of touch with the newsroom. [Here’s a counter view.] Editorial executives are expected to help make digital decisions but aren’t necessarily “digital natives”. Meanwhile, the MEAA has issued a series of reports that give voice to concerns from life-long print journalists having to master new skills, new tools, and new techniques. Presumably, it’s a group effort – but what does this group effort look like?
It’s a really interesting question and I don’t know if I have a simple answer. I think, from an audience point of view, you take an organisation like The Guardian who are doing best practice in a number of areas but they are also not making money. They’re pouring a lot of money and resources into best practice but ultimately, at the end of the day, they’re not getting the clicks on a lot of these products they’re putting through. To a journalistic audience we look at them and say “wow, that’s really sexy” but to a general mainstream audience I don’t know that they necessarily are attracted to the same attribute. I think you have to have a strategy in place for what you actually want to achieve. Do you want to show that you can do it, or do you want to create something the audience is really getting into, and want to click on and be interested in? It’s interesting because I was talking to another social media editor from a very well known, large media organisation. The only reason I’m not naming him is because I don’t want to talk on his behalf; his views might have changed since I last spoke with him. We talked a lot about data journalism and what they find at this particular organisation, which has an incredibly large online presence, is that they do these amazing infographics – really in depth, based on reams and reams of data – and they all look at it and say, “wow, that’s incredibly sexy, that’s amazing” but the audience just tunes out – they’re not interested in incredibly complicated interactive infographics. They just don’t want it. Data journalism is an example of where yes, it’s sexy to us because we’re creating them and we live in a journalism world but the audience doesn’t want huge layers on top of the information – they just want the information in an easy, digestable format. You have to take a step back and say well, yes, this might turn me on and this might be incredibly intelligent and creative and amazing but is this going to give the audience the ability to digest this information, digest it quickly, and get on with their lives? I think a lot of the products that we’re talking about, that are getting bandied about in social media circles, don’t necessarily hit that nail on the head. I think there is a bit of a disconnect between some of the boats that are being pushed out and what the audience actually wants at the end of the day.
It’s curious that you say this. Data-driven journalism is a very popular and growing concept at the moment. You’re saying the emphasis still needs to be on traditional journalists to interpret and analyse information, and offer a particular narrative, if you will? For example, there’s lots of open data projects where people can fiddle with the variables and draw their own conclusions. How do you see that sort of information just being open and unstructured, and enhancing the social sphere? You’re saying there’s still an important role for journalists to interpret and analyse information and draw their own conclusions from it?
Definitely, because context is what we do. If you just take data and present it without any context there’s no need for journalists – we can just publish a spreadsheet. The context, the background and the analysis is what we do. It’s the same difference between a citizen journalist who is re-tweeting breaking headlines and a journalist who is going away and actually identifying the information. What I always say is, we don’t publish a story in the paper saying “there are reports that there is this, that and the other” without verifying it. The same on social media. We don’t just publish “news”. Whitney Houston was a good example. The number of people I saw tweeting headlines that said Whitney Houston was dead, Whitney Houston was dead. In the rush to be fast, they forgot that our role is to actually try and verify that information. Or, more importantly, attribute where that information is coming from to give the reader the ability to decide if they think that information is true or not. My first tweet on Whitney Houston was “I am seeing reports on Twitter that Whitney Houston is dead. I have no verification. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear from the news desk.” Someone actually tweeted me back saying “finally, nobody knows where these reports are coming from”. It did turn out to be true but there are just as many like that that turn out to not be true. Jeff Goldblum for instance. There are a number of dead celebrity rumours that have gone around Twitter, I think they’re almost daily now. I’m not saying data journalism doesn’t have a place, and that it has to be a basic table of graph. What I’m saying is that some operations are constantly striving for more sophistication and I don’t know that that’s always what the reader necessarily wants. Yes, there can be a level of sophistication but how far do you go with that sophistication before you put so many layers on top of the information that the reader tunes out before they’ve actually got to the crux of the story, or the crux of what they’re trying to obtain.
I think the process of verification that you raised is interesting. You often hear people say “Twitter is my news wire” these days, because of its ability to link eyewitnesses and “knowledge holders” with the online community in a way that beats traditional media outlets to the punch. But speed, without accuracy, really has no value in journalism. How do you reconcile this tension between getting it first and getting it right? And how do you keep ahead in the news game when sometimes what you’re reporting isn’t considered “new” by the audience you’re serving, even by a matter of hours?
To me there’s no tension at all between being first and being right, because I’ll take being right every time. Every time. I don’t want to be first, I want to be reliable and I want to be correct, and then I want to be first. I will watch news sources break news and I won’t believe it until I see an organisation that I trust, and that I have belief in, publish that information – and then I will happily say “x, y and z has happened” and then attribute it to that organisation. I want to be one of those people. I want to be among the cacophony of stuff that’s floating around Twitter – I want people to say, “oh, the Herald Sun has now tweeted it. We know that it’s true.”
Of course, being first is important. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not sitting around twiddling my thumbs and saying, “oh, well, it doesn’t matter”. Of course we want to be as fast as we can. But I don’t want to be an organisation where people say, “oh, the Herald Sun’s tweeted it but they got it wrong four times last week.” You lose the value. We have to maintain trust. You have to be correct and you have to be accurate, or you have to fully attribute the information to allow other people to make that decision for themselves. “We are hearing this, but we are hearing it from TMZ.” There’s a big difference between a tweet that says “TMZ is reporting x, y and z” and “AP is reporting x, y and z.” There’s a big gap there. There’s a credibility gap, I think. Although TMZ gets it right as well, so perhaps maybe that’s not a good example. But there is a big difference, and to me there’s no tension and I’ll always take being correct over being first.
I wonder what you think about the way in which new technology allows new processes to be conjured into being. What do you think of the approach of doing what used to take place behind the four walls and closed doors of a newsroom – evaluating pieces of information, verifying them, testing them for authenticity – in the cold light of day on social media? Andy Carvin, for example, seems to have popularised this methodology. I don’t think he’s the only person that does it, of course. But he’ll say, “this is what I’ve heard. Is it true? Is it not?” He’ll contact experts. He’ll tweet information that seems provisional and contextual, if you will, putting no guarantee on it being complete and true and allowing his community to pick it apart. Do you think there’s any room for that in journalistic practices here in Australia?
I personally don’t have an issue with it, so long as you’re not being irresponsible with the information you’re putting forward. You don’t want to propagate rumour by seeking to verify it. But if you have, for instance, a story that is breaking in a rural area and you physically cannot get there, and you want to know if something is happening, I don’t really have an issue. As long as the report has a reasonable basis to start with, I won’t have an issue with it. I do that. The masthead won’t do it, but I will do it personally. You know, “I just had a friend drive past this building and he’s saying there’s smoke. Is anyone else in the area? Can you see anything?” I don’t have an issue with that. But I do think you have to use it wisely and use it in a scenario where it won’t have a kind of consequence of propagating rumour. I think where you’ve got geographic distance it would be useful.
Let’s shift gears and head down the home straight. All social media – but Twitter in particular – revolutionised journalism and news organisations responded with the social media editor. Now, we’re seeing a growing body of evidence to suggest that Twitter is evolving into a media company in it’s own right. They’ve struck out with curated pages, and the appointment of Mark Luckie as the company’s Creative Content Manager for Journalism, and so forth. Do you think they’re cutting out the intermediary when it comes to content discovery? With that in mind, how do you think the role of the social media editor will continue to evolve? How do you think journalism will continue to evolve?
The role of social media editor is different for almost every organisation that I know. I know the social media editors at almost every single Australian organisation. I actively go out of my way to seek them out and to talk to them, to have peer to peer discussion and debate. I’ve done the same with my peers in Europe and in America. I think every organisation has different characteristics and therefore the role is different for every organisation. There are social media editors with marketing backgrounds. There are social media editors with journalism backgrounds. Now, we’re seeing more and more social media editors that have technology backgrounds, or some formal technology qualification, they can do coding. I think it depends on the organisation and what other skills there are to work with. Ideally – and I know there are other social media editors that have this view – the more integration that you have between social and the newsroom, the less need there will be for a social media editor at all. I think that eventually it will become the remit of the online unit in a traditional media organisation like mine. But I think that’s a long time away. I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job. But I think once it’s fully integrated, you won’t necessarily need someone to champion integration. I think that’s a long way off. I see my role as someone who can do the training with staff, be an advocate for the editorial side and say, “how can we best harness this?” to get UCG, to find stories, to identify breaking news, to identify content that we want to glean off those channels. I think that you need an editor who is very comfortable with those channels, to do investigative, to find information when we need it. I think that it’s a bridging role because ultimately social is nascent – less so Facebook, more so Twitter. I wouldn’t describe Twitter as a mainstream technology in terms of its penetration rate. I think that you need someone that’s really, really comfortable on those platforms to be able to navigate them.
Do you think the role will become increasingly technical? The last person I spoke to about this issue, Benji Lanyado, is a firm proponent of not just social media editors but anyone working in online journalism of learning to code. Not necessarily being a programming guru, but being well-rounded and well-versed in front end web development. Do you think that’s something that’s going to be integral to the role of the social media editor?
I don’t know that it’s going to be integral. I work with people that are technology professionals within my organisation. I go to them and I collaborate with them. When I want to access an API, I’ll look at it from a very layman’s point of view, and then I will go to a technology expert and say, “okay, I’ve found this API or I’ve found this RSS or I’ve found this thing that I want to interface.” The Reddit Edit it a good example of building an API interface with something that is very difficult to navigate. The reason for that is that these platforms are not presented for journalists. They’re not aimed at journalists. We have to find a way to access them with our intentions in mind, and get out of them what we need. It’s like going to a wholesale market that’s not aimed at retailers, or vice versa, and trying to make it work for your business, and trying to make it work for what you want to achieve. I think that there are a lot of tools that are coming out now that do some of that job for us, but I can totally see that there is an area where we could be developing interfaces for these APIs, to the content stream that will enable us to do exactly what we want with a journalism monocle in, and that will allow us to better do our jobs. I do that on a micro basis for myself. I’ve created ways to access an API. YouTube is a really good example because the search capabilities don’t even mildly reflect the amount of content in the API. Not even remotely. If you’re able to access that in a more sophisticated way, you can hone in on content that you will simply not get access to through a basic search, or even though an advanced search. I think that will happen more and more. I think also, in the area of verification, there’s a lot more technology available in that area as well. There are more and more services now that are aimed at journalists, and aimed at journalists navigating these products. But I worry because I think that those services need money and newsrooms are cutting back. They don’t have a huge budget. So, I worry where those third-party products are going to get their money from. I also find it really interesting that there’s this tension – I’ve noticed it this week – between some of the platforms trying to monetise their offerings and people getting irritated because Twitter, with it’s restrictions on APIs and third-party access – there are going to be a lot of products that won’t be available. There will be a lot of apps that may not be available without paying for access to the data. Twitter’s only value that is has to monetise is information. I find it really interesting that people are so irritated by the idea that they might want to make money out of it. They pay millions and millions and millions of dollars to maintain servers, to keep what is a huge and growing platform up and running, and now they’re being criticised for trying to make money out of it? I find it really interesting. It reminds me a lot of what’s going on in the media, with people becoming irritated at the fact that they might have to start paying for a service.
It’s too tempting to not rise to the bait. In terms of pay walls, how do you perform your role as a social media editor, working amongst a community that tends to espouse the ethic of the web – to link, to put people in touch with information – and uphold the ideal of a non-commercial space where information is free? How do you best work with a community like this when you work for a company that needs to keep the lights on, that needs to pay its journalists, that needs to pay the bills?
I’ll go back to what I said earlier, which is that the value in what we do – and any media – is the context, the analysis and the background. I can’t create a value proposition out of “the cat got stuck in a tree”. But I can create a value proposition by saying, “the cat got stuck up a tree for the fifth time this week, the owner refuses to restrain the cat, and now the taxpayer is footing the bill for five call-outs a week by the fire department, when the fire department needs to be free to look after more critical situations.” That’s where the value is. The value is in the background, and analysis, and the context that we add. That’s what we do – and we do it really, really well. Twitter is a nice place to start, or to dig, but ultimately it’s just one way that we get information. We have to push further than that to be able to keep the reader fully informed and to give the reader the big picture. We have a mix of free and premium content on our website. There are reasons why we put something into the premium content part, and reasons why we put something into the free content part. Ultimately, with the decline of newspapers – they have to pay our wages. I think this is the way of the future. Organisations all over the world are finding that premium content, in some way, shape or form is the way to move forward – and we’re one of them.
Since you mention the future, I wonder if you could do the opposite and imagine the past, and indulge this last question in doing so. If you could transport yourself back in time, what would you tell a younger version of you about to enter journalism? What do you think are the skills that have brought you to where you are today?
Take the time to learn each platform from front to back because Google is so much more than entering a search term. It’s so much more. Twitter is so much more than looking for Justin Bieber and One Direction. If you don’t put the time into really learning, into understanding the capabilities, into going to the advanced search page, and looking at each field of information that you can potentially mine, you’re only going to be scratching the surface. I would say don’t assume that because you can use something, you’re using it to the best of your ability. When I look at my colleagues, one of the things that I think we could do better – generally, across the whole industry – is that the tools that we use could be used at a more sophisticated level. I think there’s to much of a “well, I’m on it, so I must be good at it” kind of an attitude. I think there’s a lot more to it. For me, it’s taken a really long time to get into Reddit, as an example. Yes, I can get on it, yes I can look at it. But to really understand the layers of it? That’s taken me a really long time. I’ve had to force myself to get comfortable with it. Now that I’ve found an interface that allows me to interact with it better, I’m really getting it and I’m really getting into it. It’s taken a while. I think because you can do a Google search doesn’t mean you really understand some of the things that Google is capable of. If I could only have one web platform it wouldn’t be Twitter and it wouldn’t be Facebook – it would be Google. I’m still learning how amazingly powerful Google is. The whole suite. Every time I go on there and say, “I’m going to go through the Google developer’s blog or do something like that, I find another tool that I didn’t know was there, that helps me do something. I think we can be very one-dimensional about the technologies we use. I think if you stop and say, “I’m going to spend the whole day learning this technology from front to back, inside and out, you’ll find that there’s so much more that you can do with it. When I make that statement, I’m thinking about Google, I’m thinking about Reddit, I’m thinking about Twitter, I’m thinking about Facebook, I’m thinking about Storify, I”m thinking about Formspring. These are all platforms that I’ve had to spend a long time getting to know. Every time you get on there you learn a different layer. I think you shouldn’t be too quick to assume you’re an expert. The word expert makes me very nervous. I’ve never put myself forward as an expert. I put myself forward as someone who is very interested and willing to try any platform, willing to try any technology, to see how I can apply it to a news scenario. I think that openness – and to remember that you’re always learning, in an area that moves as fast as social and technology does – that openness will take you far.
Isabelle, thank you very much for your time.
It’s a pleasure.