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SPJ Convention gambles on social media

SPJ Convention gambles on social mediaOctober 8: With session names like “Crap! My Paper Closed!” it was clear the journalists attending the 2010 Society of Professional Journalists Convention in Las Vegas wouldn’t be hanging out at the high slots between sessions. Almost all of them paid their own way, and on salaries averaging around $30,000, this trip was no small investment. Many of the attendees came from small, middle-America newspapers and television stations. The big draw for them (besides the location) included the social media sessions. This year, the convention, which was held at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino, offered more sessions on social media than previous conventions, and they were the most well-attended during the three-day event earlier this week.

Newspapers, especially from smaller cities, are grappling with how to handle the online world. These reporters and editors came seeking answers to ethical questions about what information to release on Twitter and Facebook, as well as find out how to promote themselves as a brand. Since newspaper editors have spent years crafting ethical and legal guidelines, being cautious to new and immediate disclosure of information is in their DNA. In the session titled “Social Media: The Safe Way,” Monica Dias, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd LLC, explained that newspapers can be sued by anyone. “If you don’t want to pay to defend it, don’t say it,” Dias said. The financial struggles newspapers have faced have only left them more cautious. If they are taught to dwell this heavily before printing one word of a story, how then are they to embrace a fast-paced “put it all out there” medium like Twitter?

The panel on “Mining Facebook, Twitter, etc.” explored this topic. Elizabeth Donald from the Belleville News-Democrat, a daily based in Belleville, Ill., suggested that when approaching social media, journalists spend some time thinking about what they should say on Twitter first. “When the moment arrives that you need to tweet something, if you haven’t already put some thought into where to draw the line, then it’s too late,” Donald said. She also insisted that the graphic, sometimes gory, details that reporters leave out of the print edition should also be left out of Twitter updates. Even when reporters are allowed to cover a court case or funeral, they should always censor out details that would not make it into the print edition, Donald told the attendees. Not everyone agreed. The audience reading the print newspaper is not necessarily the same audience following the newspaper or its reporters on Twitter.

One attendee, a reporter from a TV news station in Savannah, Ga., explained how she uses Facebook to share leads and light-hearted personal information. “They talk about things I’m not going to get in a press release,” she said.  In fact, the Savannah reporter said that by making local political leaders her friends, she’s been contacted with breaking news and important corrections immediately.

Rob Curley (pictured above), senior editor of digital for the Las Vegas Sun, stated that their company policy about social media platforms has one main rule. “It’s okay for people to promote themselves as a brand,” he said, but noted that one improper disclosure could get someone fired. Several of the panelists mentioned that reporters are on duty 24 hours a day, and should keep that in mind as they broadcast 140 characters to the world.

Panelist Jerry Ceppos, dean of the University of Nevada’s Reynolds School of Journalism, encouraged reporters to be careful about disclosing their religious preferences and political affiliations online, and noted that it’s better to friend candidates from every party rather than just one. Twenty years ago, newspaper reporters were not allowed to place political bumper stickers on their cars should they be assigned to go cover a race in the opposing party. Now candidates appear to be thankful that reporters are being more transparent, said moderator Jane Kirtley, Silha professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota.

Speaking of transparency, when Curley gave one of the most energetic presentations about how the Las Vegas Sun functions, he didn’t keep any secrets. More than 200 people scrambled for seats in the main ballroom to watch as Curly gave a behind-the-Web-page look into how their staff produces daily content. In summary, one reporter covering sports will (in one day) blog a play-by-play, tweet that he blogged about it, record an on-camera interview with the coach after the game, and put a photo slideshow together for the website.Then he writes a post-game review for the print edition and a teaser of his upcoming coverage on the website and Twitter.

If you think that’s impressive, the tour of the newsroom was even more so. With only one editor working during the day and fewer than 30 editorial staffers, the Las Vegas Sun cranks out about 45 new editorial posts to its site each day. Apparently if you overstaff a publication, it sinks. “Fifty people on staff is too much,” says Curley, who also explained that he wanted the Sun to be a news website with a newspaper, not a newspaper with a website. The company also publishes three glossy magazines, including Vegas magazine, which is only distributed to residents with a net worth of around $3 million. This oversized luxury monthly has one full-time editor, one intern and a handful of freelance writers.

This Wizard of Oz staff structure, where the great Oz and his booming voice appear to be much larger until you look behind the curtain, seems to be the way of the future for publishing. Presenters at the Digital Publishing and Advertising Conference in New York earlier this year concurred that having a skeleton crew and non-staff freelancers and interns at the ready is more cost-effective.

SPJ must be aware of this trend as the convention exhibits included companies like Patch and Demand Media, as well as several sessions on how to get paid more as a freelance writer. The national association is now taking ideas for next year’s convention in New Orleans where they will be partnering with The Radio Television Digital News Association. Suggestions for coverage can be submitted at ExcellentJournalism.org.

— Rebecca Bredholt

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