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Separating news from views: Does social media need a new player? Part 3

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Determining what communities want and need in social media coverage seems to have generated a new media role: community manager.

According to information in a March 21, 2011, article by Ben LaMothe, Why Newspapers Need Community Managers on the 10000 words blog, the term may offer a way to brand online news coverage.

LaMothe cites the Econsultancy blog for the term and its use as a way to engage the community, set overall strategy and create branding for the media’s products.

Modifying such a role in online scholastic media might serve two essential purposes: differentiating between objective and subjective content and helping establish a “brand” for student online publications. A community manager might develop strategy for reaching and involving the communities and making daily updates: performing the medium’s public relations.

Some schools using the concept of community manager haven’t yet gotten anticipated results.

Meghan Morris, editor-in-chief of The Spoke in Pennsylvania, said her publication has an “operations manager,” but the role has not worked as she would have liked. She said she has found it hard to surrender the role. “In the future, this idea of ‘community manager,'” she said, “would be part of the web director or business manager’s role. Dealing with irate parents, facilitating focus groups or other ombud duties will remain the role of the EIC.”

Ted Noelker, managing editor of multimedia at Francis Howell Central in Missouri, said his publication launched its website and communications editor position at the same time to handle promotional aspects. He, too, said, he ended up doing much of the work of the position. “It is such an open-ended job,” he said. “It’s hard to cover all they need to so without being too narrow or too broad. It’s an important role, one that’s been tougth to fill.

LaMothe called the community manager a “must-have position” for a news organization. “The comments, your Facebook page and your Twitter page are all public-facing, and they deal directly with your readers on a daily basis,” he writes. He also says the position must be separate from the newsroom.

Anaika Miller of Foothill Technology High School in California agreed with Morris and Noelker about issues. “It has just become easier for me to handle public relations,” she said. “This works for our site, but in a professional newspaper, I bet the position could be utilized better if it were somebody’s focus/only job.”

All three referred to the position as one of public relations. Miller said no one at her school solely maintains the job because the workload is too light.

Minnesota adviser Jeff Kocur said the community manager role was similar in his school, with the editor using her Facebook status to push stories direct people to the publication’s site. He said he would consider adding a community manager position to his staff. “This person would be responsible for outreach and public relations in addition to writing stories and doing the exchange papers,” he said. “They would send out twitter feeds and facebook updates to push people to our site and manage online reader surveys. This would be an editor-level position, and they would still write stories.”

These staffs perceive a need for such a position, much as LaMothe and others urge. How the position is utilized, who fills it and what its ultimate role is, however, remain a work in progress.

Historically, a public relations role has been a hard one for scholastic media. Creation of a “community manager” might enable more community involvement as journalism grows in its use of social media. How that position develops and how it is differentiated from news reporting should be an ongoing discussion.

Ideally, a  “community manager” role should be cleanly separated from that of news journalist, including separate sources and posts for public relations and news. To ensure the public understands journalism’s varied roles in a democracy, we must be transparent about what we say and what information from each source means.

Accomplishing that may not be quickly achieved as scholastic journalism increases its use of digital media. Clarifying the role of a “community manager” or similar position is a step toward scholastic journalism’s successful use of social media.

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