Sarah Marshall on social media and journalism

Written by Alex Veeneman

As 2013 came to an end, the Nieman Journalism Lab of Harvard University in the United States asked several experts in journalism to get their insights on where journalism would be in the New Year.<

As 2013 came to an end, the Nieman Journalism Lab of Harvard University in the United States asked several experts in journalism to get their insights on where journalism would be in the New Year.

Sarah Marshall, who had recently joined The Wall Street Journal as the Social Media Editor for Europe, the Middle East and Africa from the industry web site, said social media and mobile platform newsgathering would get smarter, and “extend the lifecycle of content.”

Marshall notes that more than half of social traffic to news sites this year will be via mobile platforms, and that organisations will find ways to turn news and information into a utility for the platform.

She adds that the hires by Twitter of heads of news (Joanna Geary is the Head of News Partnerships for Twitter UK, while the American media executive Vivian Schiller begins her role as Head of News in the US this month), shows the importance of the social network in newsrooms.

Kettle spoke to Marshall about her piece and what organisations can do for social media journalism this year. Below is an edited transcript of that interview:

What do you think news organizations struggled with on social media last year, and what do you think they can improve on for the year ahead?

I think some of the struggles are the sheer quantity of responses to posts. For example, a Facebook post may receive tens, hundreds or even thousands of comments. As soon as you dive in and delete a post or moderate in anyway, you are responsible for the content of all of that threat of comments. So if someone libels someone, leaves a message in contempt of court, your outlet is responsible.

I think news organisations are pushing for a near 24/7 level of coverage on social, which can add pressure, especially for smaller news outlets. Bigger organisations such as the WSJ has social teams in the US, Asia and London. Similarly, I understand that the Guardian social team hands over to the US team in the evening and then to the Australia team who hand back to the UK team. [It’s] great for us well-resourced news outlets with people in different time zones but testing for those without such luxuries.

When do you think news organisations will crack the code on using social media? Would there be other items beyond the developments you mentioned in your Nieman Lab piece that would suggest that to you?

I think there is no eureka moment and no end point. With social, as with all digital journalism, there is a constant evolution and a sharing of ideas. One thing that excites me is the fact that [the] fastest growing demographic on Twitter is the 55-64 age group.  That means we can further develop social strategies with that group in mind.

As you begin your new role at the Journal, what type of organization do you see the Journal becoming when it comes to social media?

One of the things I am trying to do is to showcase our journalists and flag up their reporting, connecting them directly with audiences. I feel privileged to work for an organisation with 1,900 journalists, which means we can RT [retweet] people on the ground at protests in Kiev or the three reporters who went to the Mandela memorial.

WSJ has been doing some excellent things on social for a long time. I remember interviewing Emily Steel as the Journal was one of the first newspapers to join Pinterest, for example. Then came significant hires, including Liz Heron (who I knew as I booked her in to keynote one of’s news:rewired conferences when she was at NY Times), Neal Mann (who I knew from journalism circles in the UK) and Elana Zak (who I knew as we’d become friends when she lived in London). Now I am there I have got to know the rest of the social team – who are all great. There’s Allison Lichter and Rubina Fillion in NY and Maya Pope-Chappell in Hong Kong.

Do you think social media, considering the need for further experimenting, has been taken for granted by some organizations?

I think the great thing about social is the fact that people experiment and learn from one another. So new ideas are quickly adopted. 

I think those who struggle are the ones with a very automated approach, where headlines are pushed out as stories are published. My view is that pumping out RSS feeds is fine as long as you add a human layer too, both to post additional information and to listen to the audience. It’s called ‘social’ media after all. It’s been said many times but always worth repeating when thinking about putting something out on social: ‘Don’t light a fire and then walk away.’

What will suggest to you that a particular news organization can excel at social media, and what do you think this would mean for those either beginning in the industry or wanting to get into the industry?

My view is that different approaches work for different news outlets, there’s no one size fits all. For some news organisations a chatty tone is more appropriate, elsewhere the voice is a little more formal. But one thing that is a real advantage for any reporter starting out, social media often comes naturally to younger reporters. Of course, many older journalists are great on social and ‘get it’ but trainees often have a natural instinct for social, perhaps as they have grown up with it. They often know how to ask for something on social in a friendly way, engaging people in a conversation and maybe moving it from social to a private email or phone call rather than sending an abrupt demand, such as ‘Can I use your photo.’

What do you think? What do you expect news organisations to do when it comes to social media, and how would that affect how you consume news? Have your say in the comments section below.

Cover image: Jason A. Howie / Flickr
Marshall image via Twitter