Newspapers are dead. PR is dead. So many people are ready to give last rites to the news gathering and reporting business that you'd think news itself was on its deathbed.
Of course, there has never been more demand for information and knowledge than there is today. Technology may threaten the revenue models and delivery methods of news, but it also is presenting new ways for journalists to promote themselves, connect to audiences, build networks, and gather information.
I had the opportunity to learn how Social Media is challenging and assisting journalists when I met with Tannette Johnson-Elie, a business columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Johnson-Elie, who has been with the Journal Sentinel for almost 20 years, is an active Twitter user. I was curious why she chose Twitter, the value she's finding in microblogging, and how Twitter and other Social Media tools are affecting the world of journalism.
As an observer of business, Johnson-Elie has been aware of Social Media for a couple years, but she didn't jump into Twitter until after writing a story about Social Media site, LinkedIn. The article became the most read story on JSOnline.com that day, and she realized, "We've tapped into an audience of people who are hungry to connect better." This led the journalist in her to begin to seek out more information about Social Media and to experience Twitter for herself. Since then, she has written popular articles about Facebook and Twitter.
As she ventured into Twitter, she thought, like many entrepreneurs, that the site may provide a great way to promote her column and JSOnline.com. And, like many of us, Johnson-Elie came to find that the greatest value of participating on Twitter is in gaining a network of peers and getting to know new people. As a journalist, Johnson-Elie is finding that she is relying less on her traditional network of contacts and more on Twitter--it's easier to send a Tweet to her 292 followers in order to gather information or find a new source than it is to pick up the phone and start working her call list.
Twitter is providing other unexpected benefits for Johnson-Elie. She is finding that Twitter is allowing her to explore interests beyond her day job. For example, she following a couple of beatboxers and music professionals on Twitter because her son has an interest in the music industry. Likewise, through her use of Twitter, she believes other are getting a "glimpse of who (she is) beyond her role as a journalist."
One thing that disappointed Johnson-Elie was an inability to track the clicks from the links she posted to Twitter. Like many others, she'd been using TinyURL.com to shorten and redirect links from Twitter. If you share this challenge with her, you may be interested in BudURL.com, a site that works in the same way as TinyUrl and Is.Gd, but also provides a means to track the number and source of clicks.
As of yet, Johnson-Elie is not finding that she's receiving a great deal of PR spam, which I found (pleasantly) surprising. She's being discriminating about who she follows, and so far has only blocked one person.
Johnson-Elie says she finds it acceptable when Twitter followers share interesting and relevant news about their company and products, but she's "not interested in companies promoting themselves and trying to sell products all the time." Johnson-Elie furnishes an example of one such Twitterer who crossed the line. This individual represented a restaurant chain, and every time Johnson-Elie shared anything on Twitter having to do with food or hunger, she received a response with a suggestion to try a different menu item; any time Johnson-Elie mentioned she was hungry or going to lunch, her Twitter follower responded with another spammy menu suggestion. This quickly turned annoying and hurt rather than helped her impression of the restaurant chain.
Johnson-Elie offers advice for Public Relations professionals looking to network with her and other journalists on Twitter: Connect with her first, demonstrate your interests and knowledge through your Tweets, build rapport, and she will then be more open to receiving news and information about your company or products. Johnson-Elie suggests that PR professionals watch for her tweets that ask for assistance, and if you have knowledge or information that may help, this is the best way to connect.
Johnson-Elie believes other journalists may find as much value as she has on Twitter. She's observed slow but steady adoption by her peers of Twitter and quite a bit of usage of other Social Media tools such as LinkedIn and Facebook. On Twitter, she is following a few journalists with other news organizations, including Rick Sanchez at CNN and Lynn Sweet with the Sun Times, but Johnson-Elie has thus far seen few reporters leveraging Twitter as much as she.
I wondered if she, as an employee of a major metropolitan newspaper, might foresee or predict a place for the printed news in the long term, but like many others Johnson-Elie recognizes the days of the physical newspaper are numbered. She sees Social Media not as a threat but as a means to help newspapers with the transition: "It is vital to capture and engage the audience; one way to do that is through Social Media, which can help us build our brand."
Like all of us, she believes it is unavoidable that journalists and news organizations continue to embrace social media, but she cautions we are venturing into unknown territory. "There are no rules," Johnson-Elie notes. We spoke about a recent well-publicized incident where a reporter live Twittered from the funeral of a three-year-old accident victim. Johnson-Elie notes that, as always, "you have to use your judgment. Do you really need to let the world know at that moment?"
I provided Johnson-Elie an opportunity to share her thoughts on blogs and "citizen journalists." I wasn't sure if a professional journalist would respect the efforts of amateur reporters, but just like the rest of us, she finds value in them--to a point. While Johnson-Elie "respect(s) people who blog" and "welcome(s) people being enterprising," she notes there's "a lot to be said for what trained professional journalists bring to the table." She points out that journalists offer strong research capabilities, large networks of sources, access to important sources, and knowledge of the beats to which they are assigned.
Johnson-Elie is concerned about the misinformation that can be disseminated from blogs and the impact this can have. She cited a recent incident with her husband, who is a banker. In the midst of the recent banking crisis, he read some concerning information about his employer on a blog. She suggested he seek out legitimate sources of information to confirm the report, and he came to learn the information was false. We all know this, of course, but Johnson-Elie reminds us, "Just because it's been posted doesn't make it fact."
In the end, it seemed that Johnson-Elie's experiences and insights as a journalist were quite similar to my own as a marketing professional--we both are finding the same sorts of value, challenges, and surprises as we engage in Social Media. Johnson-Elie also shares the same advice that I have often offered to newbies as they venture into Twitter and other Social Media: "Keep an open mind."
How have your experiences using Twitter or other Social Media sites different from your expectations? Your comments and insights would be appreciated.