Facebook now accounts for more than 5% of traffic for many major news outlets. As the Internet floods users with options from every possible newspaper simultaneously, many began filtering the firehose of information through Mark Zuckerberg’s site, using their friends’ recommendations as an alternative to visiting the websites themselves.
The hacker upstarts at Facebook needed a peer to educate and interface with reporters, but one versed in the unfamiliar world of journalism: Enter 25-year-old Vadim Lavrusik, who began his career experimenting with social media at his college newspaper. He was hired a month ago to be that guru. For Lavrusik (pronounced LAV-rus-sick), reporters are now brands in themselves, and it’s his job to make sure Facebook is responsive to their needs and informs them about how to harness social media to rake in more eyeballs.
A whole three years ago, when Lavrusik was beginning his career, social journalism was a novelty: College newspapers were experimenting with offices on Google Wave (remember that?); sourcing stories through Twitter was still cutting-edge stuff. “We built a Facebook news application for our [college news] site, and I think we were actually one of the first news outlets to do that,” he recalls.
Over the next year, he would bounce around like an energetic pinball, first doing social media strategy for the The New York Times, then over to the rising social media blog Mashable.com. Around this time Lavrusik was brought on as an adjunct professor at Columbia’s prestigious Graduate School of Journalism.
Roughly a year later he became the Journalism Program Manager at Facebook.
“Especially for us print folks, we’re used to hiding behind our byline,” he says. But now that everyone can publish, a newspaper’s brand-name alone doesn’t guarantee credibility. Savvy readers will follow up, ask questions, tweet criticism, and send updates. “The conversation that takes place after the publication is just as much a part of that process.”
The name-brand recognition that was once only the domain of TV anchors and pencil-etched op-ed columnists should now apply to all reporters, he argues. With ever more sources to choose from, reporters who want a consistent audience will have to be able to show that “I am the best source for this kind of news.” He continues, “As journalists, we’re almost just as responsible for the distribution of news.”
The philosophy of the engaged journalist becomes Facebook territory at the fan page: In order to be the epicenter of conversation, there has to be some centralized point to broadcast and interact from.
Problem is, Facebook is still primarily a place to keep up with friends and family. “I felt uncomfortable when my sources would try to friend me,” Lavrusik says. Rejecting the request closes off an important source of information, upsets a fan, and can seem kind of mean. Fan pages for writers are a Goldie-Locks compromise between lying in bed with a source as a friend but still keeping them within shouting distance, should they have something worth saying.
In other words, in the new world, “journalist” isn’t synonymous with “writer”: Journalists are PR flacks, community managers, investigators, hackers, and story tellers all rolled into one digitally dense package. Ultimately, that new identity needs a home–why not Facebook?
Feature development is rarely a statistically precise investigation of user demands: Programmers often up end up coding patches to the very problems they stumble upon during their own use. As a long-time social journalist, his role is, in part, to alert programmers to the needs of his fellow journalists. As an example, after the newly revamped polling tool was launched, many journalists wanted more sophisticated features so they could add photos, context, and target certain demographics.
“I basically compiled the five main things that kind of kept coming up in terms of feedback from the journalists and sent it over to the product manager on the questions tool. ”
In a very real sense, given the mammoth, continent-like size of Facebook, Lavrusik acts as an ambassador, a representative of his people on the relatively isolated social media island.
Social media prowess can turn an overlooked byline into a reporting superstar. NPR’s Andy Carvin, who mastered the art of Twitter news curation, has become an overnight success, with a nice profile from the Washington Post, and was, most recently, invited by the White House to curate tweets regarding President Obama’s Middle East speech.
Facebook, too, can be a powerful platform. Lavrusik recounts a recent example of a local news station using their fan page as a makeshift emergency site during a devastating storm in the South. (We wrote about that here.) Reporters and community members kept viewers updated, posted multimedia, and shared information about damage. One such user wrote a heartfelt thanks to the news team afterwards,
I’d like to thank James Spann and all of the meteorologists and crew at ABC 33/40 for keeping not only the people of northern Alabama informed, but the whole world informed. I know dozens of people from around the country, including myself, who were watching the UStream feed faithfully all day. Your professionalism and dedication saved countless lives today. Thank you.
Through the newly launched Journalists on Facebook page, he hopes to spread best practices to fellow journalists and faculty around the world. Journalism as a college major has been hit particularly hard from pessimistic administrators who have no interest in training students for a shrinking industry. Lavrusik hopes that some 21st-century upgrading can help realign the education of a journalist with the new world.
The Future Is TV Guide, Not NBC
When asked whether he thinks Facebook will eventually become its own media empire, given that major sporting events and Obama himself have produced original content for the site, Lavrusik says no. Rather, the future of Facebook is a sort of “TV Guide” for the media, where our friends’ newsfeed becomes an almost exhaustive directory for what we wish to consume.
So, for now, The New York Times can rest easy that Facebook isn’t trying to replace them–but just to play it safe, employees at the Grey Lady might still want to fan their former colleague.