[Interview] Social insiders: Sarah Marshall on journalism and Twitter
In the first of a new series of Q&A interviews with leading social media experts, SocialBro meets the Wall Street Journal’s EMEA social media editor Sarah Marshall and finds out how Twitter is transforming the news business...
Sarah Marshall is The Wall Street Journal's social media editor for Europe, Middle East and Africa. Before joining the WSJ in December 2013 Sarah was technology editor at Journalism.co.uk, where she reported on innovations in the digital news industry. Sarah is keen supporter of the Hacks/Hackers movement, where journalists and technologists get together with the aim of "rethinking the future of news and information". Well versed in Arabic and Spanish, Sarah has worked as a journalist, broadcaster and producer in a wide variety of international territories.
How has the growth of social media transformed the news industry?
It’s basically made things a whole lot faster in terms of finding, researching, verifying and breaking new stories.
Funnily enough, I was thinking about this recently. I started my journalism career in radio, reading the news on the breakfast show. This was in the days before Twitter so we used to get text messages from listeners as we were broadcasting and I remember thinking at the time that this kind of instant audience interaction was really exciting and wonderful.
It wasn't long after that we began to see these new social technologies that let you actually conduct a full conversation with you audience. What's more you didn't need to be a radio broadcaster to take advantage of them - you could just as easily be a print journalist.
In the old days, newspaper journalists used push the 'publish' button on a story and then forget about it. The two-way flow of information and reaction on social media has changed that forever.
So journalists are using social media to monitor the performance of their stories?
I think that a lot of journalists are now spending time looking at analytics to figure out what type of thing works well online and how they might use social channels to improve their online readership figures, but professional journalists generally work on "gut news instinct" and I don't think that's changed. That is to say, I don't think that the desire for more social media shares is influencing the sort of stories that journalists choose to write.
It's more that there's now a widespread recognition that social is a valuable tool in gathering and distributing timely content, attracting new readers and engaging them in an ongoing conversation.
How have veteran journalists coped with the shift required of them?
I've been very pleasantly surprised on that front. I only joined the WSJ in December and one of the questions I asked when I was interviewed for the job was: "Are your people up for it when it comes to social media?" I mistakenly assumed that part of my role as Social Media Editor would be 'converting' some journalists who saw little or no value in social.
Actually, here at the Journal, it's clear that they recognised the value of social a long time ago, particularly Twitter.
You only have to look over the shoulder of a colleague and see that they are getting engagement on stories, or finding stories, or being able to add more readers to their stories and you start to understand. When any new platform or a new idea comes out, you start with the people who are really keen to use it and, if it has value, it will naturally filter through the newsroom. That’s certainly what has happened here. Social media has become intertwined with the processes of how we gather and distribute stories.
Even though I'm ‘social media editor’ at the Journal there are people here with far more followers than me.
How exactly has Twitter changed the news gathering process?
News Corp, which owns the Journal, acquired social news agency Storyful in December, bringing in expert knowledge from specialist teams who use social media to not only spot new potential stories as they break on Twitter but also to then verify the accuracy of those initial tweets.
Another thing that has been an absolute joy to me since I joined the Journal is the fact that we have this army of journalists all around the world. We’re one of the few news organisations, for example, to have someone permanently based in Syria. Our man on the ground in Homs, Sam Dagher, has been giving an amazing blow-by-blow account of what’s happening there, tweeting live up-to-the-second accounts of the unfolding civil war in conditions that the UN have described as “hellish”. When you also consider that, via Twitter, Sam has been answering questions from his followers while in the midst of the action, it’s almost like a brand new form of journalism that’s emerging in front of our eyes.
For people who still don’t see the value of social media, how would you go about convincing them?
I think people very quickly see the potential value of Facebook in terms of keeping in touch with friends but it can be more difficult for some to understand the value of Twitter. What many people don’t realise is that, beyond connecting with friends, if you have niche interests, cooking or photography or whatever, Twitter lets you easily search those down and find interesting relevant people to follow and learn from. I say to my colleagues here that if you only follow other people at the Journal you’re only going to find out news you already know.
In effect, Twitter provides you with your own tailored newsfeed which you can then adjust as time moves on and your interests evolve.
Not following people you find interesting is one of the main reasons people leave Twitter – so spend time finding people to follow who you will learn from. That will make you log on to Twitter every day.
For any businesses out there still struggling to get to grips with Twitter, what advice can you offer?
The first thing is to remember that Twitter is a conversation, not a one-way broadcast channel.
Don’t just light the fire and walk away. Be ready to engage with your new followers.
The second thing is that you should expect to make the occasional mistake. We all do it as we’re writing and posting in real-time. The key is not to panic and let things develop into a full-blown PR crisis. Be honest and transparent and, when mistakes are made, take it on the chin, apologise and move on. On Twitter there’s always something new for people to talk about just around the corner.
Finally, try to understand the culture and the vernacular of whatever social media platform you are using. Take time to watch and learn from what other people do and get a sense of the sort of tone that works well.
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