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Dean Sree Sreenivasan on Using Social Media For Better Journalism

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"I used to say "justify every pixel," said Sree Sreenivasan. "Now I say earn every reader."

Sreenivasan, a dean of student affairs and professor at the Columbia Journalism School, went beyond "what Jeff Jarvis calls the blog boy dance," offering up more than an hour of cogent advice, perspective and tips on social media last month to a packed classroom populated by members of the DC Online News Association at Georgetown's campus in Virginia.

Where once he used to go around newsrooms to talk about email, then Google and blogs, now he's moved to new tools of digital journalism grounded in a reciprocal relationship between the audience and the reporter. After all, Sreenivasan had to tailor his talk to the audience, a collection of writers, editors and producers already steeped in the tools of digital journalism, moving quickly beyond listing Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to the tools and services that that enable journalists to use those social media platforms improve their reporting, editing and careers.

"The best people find the things that work for them and skip the rest," said Sreenivasan. Services need to be useful, relevant and extend the journalist's work. Quoting a student, now at the Wall Street Journal, Sreenivasan observed that you "can have greatest content in world but will die on the vine if we don't have a way for our readers to find it." He classified the utility of social media for journalists into four broad categories:

  • tracking trends on a given beat
  • connecting with the audience, where ever it is online
  • putting that audience to work, aka crowdsourcing
  • building and curating the journalists personal brand

"Tools should fit into workflow and life flow," he said. "All journalists should be early testers and late adopters." In that context, he shared three other social media tools he's tried but did not currently use: Google Wave, Google Buzz and Foursquare. Sreenivaan also offered Second Life as an example, quipped that "I have twins; I have no time for first life!"

The new Listener-in-Chief

One group that undoubtedly needs to keep up with new tools and platforms is the burgeoning class of social media editors. Sreenivasan watches the newly-minted "listeners-in-chief" closely, maintaining a list of social media editors on Twitter and analyzing how they're using the social Web to advance the editorial mission of their mastheads.

He showed the ONA audience a tool new to many in the room, TagHive.com, that showed which tags were trending for a group. What's trending for social media editors? This morning, it was "news, love, work, today, great, people, awesome and thanks." A good-natured group, at least as evidenced by language.

Sreenivasan also answered a question I posed that is of great personal interest: Is it ethical to friend sources on social networking platforms?

The simple answer is yes, in his opinion, but with many a caveat and tweaks to privacy settings. Sreenivasan described the experiences of people in NGOs, activists and other sources whose work has been impaired by associations on social media. To protect yourself and sources, he recommended that Facebook users untag themselves, practicing "security by obscurity," and use lists. As an example of what can go wrong, he pointed to WhatTheFacebook.com.

Where can journalists turn next for information? Follow @sreenet on Twitter and browse through the resources in his social media guide, which he referenced in the videos I've embedded in this post. He's a constant source of relevant news, great writing and good tips.

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