Susan Mernit on Social Media

25 Mar

Recently I had the chance to talk with Susan Mernit about the role of social media in journalism. Susan is a long time blogger and reporter who started the site OaklandLocal. In her words OaklandLocal is:

[A news site] centered on issues including environmental justice, food distribution,transportation, development & housing, and gender & identity, OaklandLocal aggregates information and news  from local non-profits and community organizations working on these topics within a range of Oakland neighborhoods. We are committed to diverse voices, reader engagement, deep issue coverage and local commentary.

Any reader that spends time on OaklandLocal will get a good taste of the diversity in stories that make up Oakland. The site does a great job of covering news from various neighborhoods and across a number of topics. When asked about the role that social media has had in finding stories, Susan explained that social networking like twitter and facebook have made it much easier to locate the stories that don’t get covered in the mainstream and national media. This approach to story finding means that OaklandLocal  provides a truly fresh and new perspective to the news, rather than just repeating the same stories as other news sources.

Another aspect discussed in detail with Susan was the separation of the personal and public aspects of social media. An avid user of twitter, facebook and scribe, Susan shared that she only uses a single account for both professional and personal interactions on each service. Susan mentioned that there are downsides to this approach and that frequently she has to be overly aware of her wording when reading an interesting article or posting about it because its easy for a simple post to appear as an endorsement from her and subsequently an endorsement from the site – when in actuality it was just an interesting article. The extra hassle isn’t a deterrent however; Susan, continues to post as herself and be honest about her opinions on a frequent basis via social media.

When asked about how much of an asset social media is to the reporting process, especially for a web based news site, I was surprised by her answer. Susan explained that she had been writing online since the early days of blogging and in the beginning there wasn’t the convenience of social media to find stories or develop community around them. She explained that in those early days her goals were still the same, find often over-looked stories and share them with the community, but she did so by talking to people and networking in real life. I followed up on this idea by asking if the types of input she received had changed since moving to more social media and online networking. Susan’s impression was that while there are more people available at any given point with social media, the total number of opinions and viewpoints seemed to be pretty similar as to when all of her information gathering happened outside the internet.

Honesty was really the backbone of the message Susan had to share. The principles and idea that journalists are people first and as people they can’t help but have opinions. She shared that in her own writing she doesn’t strive to be without any personal stance on an issue but rather to just present all possible sides to every story – allowing news to be more about openness, transparency and dialog rather than simply marketing itself as unbiased. This approach is what makes OaklandLocal a unique asset to the hyperlocal news community. The ability to come to seek out stories, share them with the community and then allow for open discussion to commence from there.

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