Social media plays a “central role in gathering our news,” says Lauren McLaw of the Associated Press.

Original author: Steve Myers
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As Sree Sreenivasan found out on Friday, Lauren McCullough’s promotion from the Associated Press (AP) as social media and engagement manager is yet another proof that news media take citizen journalism seriously.

I wrote to Loren to learn more about the role that social media play in news gathering by the AP agency, how it affects the team, whether it anticipates changes in the agency’s social media relations policy, and whether all 3000 agency journalists will start using them. Below is an edited version of our correspondence.

Steve Myers: More and more news media are recognizing the important role of social media by creating posts like yours. But AP is a special organization, most of its content is published through intermediaries, and it itself does not have such direct contact with people who consume news. So what role does social media play for AP? Maybe this is an attempt to reach the end consumer directly?

Lauren Makalou: AP has always recognized the importance of citizen journalists. The most striking photos of recent events - the explosions in Oklahoma City, September 11, the crash of the shuttle Columbia - were taken by ordinary citizens, witnesses, it was their pictures that were then distributed by the agency. When social networks flourished, it became easier to share content and get in touch with reporters. We took advantage of this advantage, as you could already see from the stories, among which the collapse of the Minnesota bridge and the emergency landing of the aircraft on the Hudson River. Last week I watched a report in which they said that we were late for the party with the introduction of my position, but in fact we were here all this time.
Social media plays a central role in collecting our news. AP reporters are active on social networks, building up a source database and monitoring trends. In addition, we have several corporate accounts such as @APStylebook on Twitter and our own YouTube channel. We are constantly looking for new ways to engage consumers in the news process. In the coming weeks, we plan to roll out a few more agency accounts on social networks. By this we hope to engage and help our consumers.
Example: Together with our members and regional affiliates, the agency launched, which presents premium multimedia materials about the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. The site is optimized so that users share content, built-in widgets are created on it. We also have great things planned to support Twitter and Facebook accounts.

An AP article about your new position says that you will lead the editors “in order to get journalistic material from social networks and provide feedback to news managers on topics of strong interest in social networks.” Explain how this work will affect AP journalism. For example, will you be writing about something that has become a trend on Twitter?

Lauren Makalou: News and rumors appear on social networks daily. Our editors discuss what deserves news coverage. We will not write about something just on the grounds that it has become a trend on Twitter, but we will discuss it and evaluate whether the popularity of the trend corresponds to the information value of the news itself. We want to engage in dialogue and want to be able to communicate to people what they want. I do not consider this work as a problem for our journalistic work. Our mission is the same: to receive (information) quickly, to receive first, to receive without errors.

You participated in tweet @AP_Courtside during a meeting for the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor. How has this experiment influenced AP practice in covering such hearings?

Lauren McCullough: The Sotomayor hearing was the first time that the AP has actively included users in the news gathering. We used our Yahoo blog and our @AP_Courtside account to communicate directly with the public. We post links to relevant content of various kinds, both our own and created by our members. We clarified and answered questions. We used the platform and our access capabilities to help people feel right in the hearing room. By engaging in a two-way dialogue with the public, we have improved the quality of our work. In addition, we implemented this together with several newspapers.
We look at social networks not as a competitor, but as something that can attract consumers. In many ways, we are all trying to create new models that will allow the media to flourish.

What lessons did the organization learn from the experiment?

Lauren Makalou: A lot of conclusions have been made. Perhaps the most important one was: If given the opportunity, users will actively participate in a two-way dialogue on the topic of news. News readers haven’t gone anywhere. Only their habits and expectations have changed. And we have a situation that allows us to take steps and help our consumers.

You are currently in charge of the AP’s Social Media Center in New York. What is this center? Is this a new structure? How many people work there?

Lauren Makalou: The Social Networking Center will be part of our Nerve Center, which is our new headquarters in New York. In addition to us, it includes the News Center, the Center for Standards and the Production Center.
The nervous center is the main point of intersection of information from our regional offices for all formats. This is done to be sure that we are competitive on the most important news for all types of media, and for the effective coordination of our resources. While we are building it, I report to Lou Ferrara, one of AP's managing editors.
So far, we have decided that in the center of social networks there will be three full-time jobs.

After you announced your appointment on Twitter, I saw this correspondence between you and Dean Betz from the Houston Chronicle.
  1. Dean betzdeanbetz @lfmccullough Congrats. Will your role include AP members, or delivering AP directly to readers, bypassing members? 07 Jan 2010 from web in reply to lfmccullough
  2. Lauren mcculloughlfmccullough @deanbetz We're exploring many kinds of models, all of which are aimed at benefiting our members and customers. 07 Jan 2010 from web in reply to deanbetz
  3. Lauren mcculloughlfmccullough @deanbetz As you might have seen over the past year, we've put forward a variety of efforts involving members, and continue to do so. 07 Jan 2010 from web
  4. Dean betzdeanbetz @lfmccullough I'm eager to work with you to make sure that members' needs are included in AP's social media projects. It's been spotty. 07 Jan 2010 from TweetDeck in reply to lfmccullough
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Betz asks a question that I heard from other members of the AP: They are afraid that the news flow will pass them, because the AP is testing new delivery methods directly to the reader. I give you the opportunity to talk about this problem, not limited to 140 characters. How does your social media strategy match your interests and engage your members? Are there any examples from the projects done?

Lauren Makalou: While we are building our presence on social networks, we do not forget about the opportunity to advertise the work of AP and its members. Our goal is a successful result for both members and readers. I think this is in the interests of the AP and the entire media industry.
During the Sotomayor Appointment Hearings, we regularly included products from our members, including the Los Angeles Times, New Haven Regista, and Mr. Betz’s Houston Chronicle. We also brought traffic from Twitter and a blog on Yahoo to the sites of our members. In future projects, we will continue to do so. We plan to cooperate with our members and consumers in all formats, as we all try to develop new business models for the media.

You will be involved in developing AP social media guidelines. Many media, including the AP itself, have been criticized for developing prohibitive policies. How to reconcile the employer's need for using social networks with the employee’s desire to freely express their opinion that is not related to work?

Lauren Makalou: I believe that any good social media account will satisfy all sorts of goals. He is not completely personal, not completely working. I think that an employee can successfully combine the needs of both parties - personal and professional - without risk to the employer, himself or our journalistic values.
The purpose of the current AP instructions is to provide basic information for our employees, from which you can build on further actions. We are not trying to cool the ardor; rather, we are trying to find a way to stimulate enthusiasm and teach people how to incorporate social media into their work. As is the case with everything new, we do not yet have all the answers. And we hope that our employees will also participate in the search for answers, communicating with all interested parties.

Would you change anything in AP’s current social media policy?

Lauren Makalou: I believe that our current policy is very fair and gives enough guidance, without being too strict. We constantly reevaluate our policy so that it does not become obsolete and useful to employees. Our policies are based on existing values ​​of journalism and the instructions used in the work. We need not to invent, but to adapt to the new landscape.

Should all AP reporters use social media? Tell us how you would persuade a long-time AP employee to start incorporating social media into their work.

Lauren Makalou: I encourage all AP journalists to use social media. The main thing is to find a way to include them in the daily work of a journalist and use the following approach.
Step 1. Choose one social network to which you devote yourself.
Step 2. Evaluate your tasks and identify realistic milestones.
Step 3. Make a plan for using the network. Allocate a special time every day to visit the network. Stick to this schedule.
Step 4. Do it!

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