News Leadership 3.0

September 09, 2009

In Charlotte,  a local Twitter directory

The Charlotte Observer sees opportunity in social media and Twitter is one piece of its strategy

Roger Cohen, meet Jeff Elder.
Cohen is a respected New York Times reporter who resists the notion that Twitter has a place in journalism. Jeff Elder is social media columnist at the Charlotte Observer who sees promise and opportunity in embracing Twitter and other social media.
Elder, who spent the past year exploring social media as a Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University,  says his organization wants to “harness the power and juice of social media” via Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. (Editors from the Observer participated in KDMC’s social media strategy class earlier this year.)
A new directory for Charlotte residents and businesses on Twitter is part of the Observer’s social media initiative.
Elder estimates there are 3,000 people on Twitter in Charlotte and he and Innovation Editor Steve Gunn want to give them a virtual place to talk to one another and to them.
Launched a few weeks ago, the directory immediately drew more than 500 sign ups and now is approaching 700 with little promotion since the launch. Elder says the Observer staff now is figuring out how to categorize the directory to make it easier to find like interests.
Elder also likes the idea that the directory and other initiatives will help “elevate the social media community so establishment media can see this is important.”
Elder believes established news organizations have a significant role to play in social networks. “They still need us to elevate the dialog,” he said.
Traditional journalists will need to shift their attitudes and reshape their roles to adapt to social media. As Elder said: “Unless you believe that the dialog is worthwhile, I don’t think you’re going to be able to use it.
His own job is shifting considerably—from someone who mostly writes about social media and how to use it (here is his recommendation of local people to follow on Twitter) to someone who draws story material from user tweets, Facebook comments and e-mails (here is a column on how the health care debate exploded on Facebook.)
Elder says he spends a considerable amount of time helping newbies with social media but believes the time is worth it. “You have to go out there and give stuff and it comes back around ... Newspapers don’t like to hear that.”
Meanwhile, Cohen and other traditional journalists who reject social media as the medium of the unwashed might be better off developing their understanding of social media and learning how journalists like Elder are experimenting with these new and widely used communication tools.
It’s another example of a split I see among journalists. Some focus on the past and how to defend it (and I don’t dismiss how much is being lost). Others are looking forward and trying to figure out a future.
It doesn’t have to be either-or, but helping invent the future sure sounds more productive, and more fun. I’m pleased to say that I know dozens of news organizations around the country like Charlotte that are doing just that.


Historically, the Charlotte Observer has never been a trendsetter, except when it comes to public journalism. They’ve gotten away from that.

Let’s not quote numbers because the directory has many duplicate entries. It also allows for one person with multiple accounts to have multiple entries.

As one of the most important elections in the past two decades fast approaches in Charlotte, the Observer takes baby steps that effectively marginalize the online community. They reach out and make promises, only to incorporate the ideas shared without any reciprocation whatsoever.

And the people that suffer the most are the citizens of Charlotte. The Observer has the opportunity for a 4-pronged approach.  Print (In-depth, wide dissemination to locality), Website (fast updates, breaking news), Zip! (A commonplace of News curating that allows users to even link to stories outside of the Observer), Twitter (a primary tool reporters should be using to engage the community).

Whether its Kibboko, Zip! or the Twitter directory, all these features are soft-launched.

Do some research and you’ll find that the people who care most about the future of journalism, that are actively and openly innovative, are absent from this directory. With good reason. They’re doing good work without the backing of conglomerate grants and ivy league fellowships. 

If the employees at the Observer want the directory to be a hub for businesses, fine. But lets’s not conceptualize this attempt to monetize a Twitter search with jumping into the deep end of a new News paradigm. The Observer has proven itself to be a flagship of slow-adoption and one-way communication.

Thanks for the comment. You apparently have some history with the Observer. I don’t so I won’t presume to make any sweeping evaluations. I simply wanted to share something the Observer is trying out in case the idea resonates with others.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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