The proliferation of Web-based devices such as smartphones and tablets, and the social media that they connect us to, has dramatically changed the way we communicate and exchange information. Their effect on interpersonal and brand-consumer communications is well-documented, yet continues to evolve. Nowhere has this change been more dramatic than within the media industry itself. Print publications continue to lose market share to online news sites; paid-content struggles to compete with content aggregators that share this content for free; journalist continue to fight for their place in a world of "me-first" bloggers and social celebrities; and public opinion and satire are often preferred reading over real news programming.
For news media, as with any industry, social media is a double-edged sword. It offers journalists tremendous opportunity to gather and disseminate information quickly; however, it can just as easily derail the flow of news with rumor and rhetoric. The Web, and the access it grants to the "people on the street," is a powerful resource for broadcast news providers such as CNN; however, it's also a disruptive force that requires vigilant management.
Is social media leading or following the news we report and consume?
Twitter, the ever-popular micro-blogging social network, is among the top sources for news organizations seeking to gather and share information; I turned to Lila King, CNN's Senior Director for Social News for some insights. After all, CNN was recently listed among the most engaged brands on Twitter according to a study conducted by InfiniGraph and Dr. Natalie Petouhoff, and sponsored by Nestivity, an aggregation platform for social conversations.
I reached out to Ms. King to better understand the role of social media in modern news delivery. Below is a transcript of the interview.
Fiorella: CNN seems to have created a niche among cable news programs as "the most socially connected." Was this a strategy designed and executed based on a master plan or did it evolve naturally based on audience engagement?
King: Well, part of me wishes I could tell you that it's all part of a well-articulated strategy set out years ago in a warm, wood-paneled room high on an executive floor. But we both know that'd be crazy-talk. I think a lot of our success on Twitter comes from starting early, from producers and enthusiasts all around the network digging in and learning how the new platform works, and then broadening that out over time to include CNN'ers of all stripes.
Fiorella: Many challenge that cable news stations such as CNN that broadcast news are not really engaging their audience. What is your response to that sentiment?
King: Broadcast news organizations are very good at one-way communication, and that's not really how the Internet works. We can always do better at cultivating conversation and interacting with our audiences. As professional journalists, our training and experience would tell us that the best thing we have to offer is a steady stream of pronouncements on the truth, which on a platform like Twitter translates to rat-a-tat-tat headlines and links back to stuff we have and know. And there is a place and a need for that, and we fill it and that's not something to beat ourselves up about.
But I also think the criticism ignores a higher-level order of engagement that comes when news organizations like CNN listen to and reflect the social conversation in their decision-making and storytelling every day. CNN launched iReport way back in 2006, the same year Twitter got started, with the central idea that the terms of the new digital world required us to learn how to listen and involve our audiences in what we do every day. You may not see it directly in streams of @ replies from @cnnbrk, but the social conversation is absolutely woven into the way CNN works every day.
Fiorella: How would you characterize CNN's engagement strategy on Twitter?
King: The guidance we give to journalists who run our Twitter accounts, both big and small, is dead simple: "Act like a human." In other words, when you are on Twitter or any other social network, be the expert, curious, interesting, responsible journalist you are and that humanity will shine through.
That mantra gets interpreted in different ways depending on the role and goals of the account. For our big flagship accounts (@cnnbrk and @cnn), whose primary responsibility is to share what we know and how, being human is about striking the right voice and tone. For show accounts, it's about listening and creating a framework for the audience to get involved. For individuals, it's about cultivating relationships and revealing who we are.
Fiorella: Many claim that news is no longer news but entertainment, especially when news channels engage on social channels such as Twitter. Do you see a difference between news and entertainment today and what impact does that have on your engagement strategy?
King: Look, news is and always has been a combination of what people are talking about and what news editors think needs to be talked about. You might call the former "entertainment," but I think that's overly simple. Social data tells us what we're into more instantly and clearly than we've ever been able to see it before, and as news editors we shouldn't be shy about using that data to help shape what we cover and how (and how much we tweet about it). The trick is balancing social chatter with news judgment and a good editor's sixth sense for a big story.
You know who's the all-time champion here? Jake Tapper. His Twitter stream is a crazy mix of scoops and sports scores and good reads from the competition, with the occasional picture of a lost dog (Twitter's version of service journalism?). And he plays a quip-y hashtag game with his show audience most days. But all told, his The Lead show on CNN is news with a capital N and there's no way around it.
Fiorella: Social media channels such as Twitter have become intertwined with how news is delivered. It helps spread the message but can also derail it just as quickly. What strategies or tactics are in place to ensure that the channel continues to add value to your audience?
King: Fact-checking and verification has never been more important as it is today, when social media means any random rumor can spread around the world in no time at all. At CNN, we consider it our responsibility to verify social media before we share it or use it on our platforms. Mostly it happens through the iReport team, who will often live-tweet the verified social media of a big event as it's developing.
Fiorella: Given the speed at which news travels, and the competition among media to be the first to report the news, how seriously does CNN take audience commentary via Twitter?
King: We listen to it, but we're not cowed by it. It's foolish not to listen to what people have to say about you, but it's just as foolish to think that's all there is.
Fiorella: How does CNN's team use Twitter as a source to identify (or verify) news and trends?
King: If you walk through the 5th floor newsroom at CNN's headquarters in Atlanta, you see a whole lot of Tweetdeck and other tools for monitoring Twitter. Journalists who are responsible for covering and following areas of the world essentially mainline Twitter on their beats, and use it as both a tip line and search tool for eyewitnesses and first pictures. The verification mostly happens outside of Twitter, using time-tested means like interviews and cross-checking with other facts. You know, reporting.
King's responses showcase the fact that the industry has embraced social media, but seem to be riding the trend currents instead of acting from a prepared communication blueprint. "From the onset, cable news revolutionized news distribution with their 24/7 format, and they continue to innovate with social media by finding new ways to connect with their audience," shares Henry Min, the founder and president of Nestivity. "I've seen a lot of on-air calls to actions to tweet or follow the news and/or on-air personalities. What I'd like to see is a move beyond the one-to-many communications model. What if news topics became a deeper on-going dialogue with the people and organizations we love to follow? News, thoughts and opinions would no longer be a fleeting moment in the social sphere, and viewers would have the opportunity to become active participants."
Add your thoughts to the conversation: Has social media benefited the way you view the delivery of cable news programs? Has it improved it? What's the future of cable news as we increasingly embrace Web-based communication technologies and platforms in our daily lives?
Follow Sam Fiorella on Twitter: www.twitter.com/samfiorella