4 Questions With The Economist’s Community Editor

“Four Questions With …” is an occasional series of interviews with different social media and community editors in the news industry.

So, what is it like to be a social media or community editor? What are the job responsibilities and how does one end up landing such a gig? The goal of “Four Questions With …” is to answer some of these questions and to give insight into what is a new and constantly evolving field.

This month, we chatted with Mark Johnson, The Economist’s community editor based in its London office. He joined the well-respected news magazine in June 2010 after working in publishing, developing digital strategy at HarperCollins in London.

Here are Johnson’s thoughts on community, social media and journalism.

EZ: What exactly does your job entail?
MJ: There are three parts to my role: management, evangelism, and development.

Firstly, I manage our team of moderators to make sure that the community at economist.com runs smoothly, and also work with colleagues across the company to make sure we are publishing the best possible postings on social networks.

Secondly, I spend a lot of time talking to our staff about why community is important to us, and encouraging our journalists to interact with readers on our website and elsewhere.

The third part is development, both editorial and technical. That means asking, “What’s next?” What kind of community-focused features can we run, on our own site and on social networks? And what kind of technical platform do we need to achieve that?

When time allows, I write for the magazine on politics, technology and international affairs.

EZ: How does one land a job as a community editor? What are the must-have skills that someone aspiring to be a community editor needs?
MJ: I think it’s important for aspiring social media editors to have a good breadth of skills, especially while the precise responsibilities of the role continue to evolve. Experience in a digital role in another industry sector is probably valuable (I don’t think I’d have learnt the same skills had I gone straight into journalism after university).

You certainly need to be inventive to take best advantage of all the various social media platforms, and also highly organised, because you’ll be juggling a lot of balls at once.

I’d argue that healthy cynicism helps, as well – social media is developing very fast, and it’s important to be able to spot the real opportunities hidden in the hype.

EZ: How does a news organization such as The Economist, which doesn’t necessarily create content every day like The New York Times or a blog, use social media?
MJ: Actually, you might be surprised by the variety of online content we produce. Over the last two years our writers have started more than 20 different blogs, many covering very distinct niches that aren’twell-served by other outlets.

Our social media efforts help us push out the work we do to the many people who may be aware of our brand but still largely unfamiliar with our writing. There are increasing numbers of intellectually curious readers who would greatly enjoy our journalism, and social media is helping us reach them.

We also take very seriously our mission to encourage intelligent debate around subjects that matter, wherever it may take place. Our magazine is incredibly fortunate to have a very knowledgeable and distinguished audience, and their perspectives are frequently illuminating.

We want to help convene, and participate in, the kind of intelligent conversations that could still happen more across the social web.

Partly we try to do this through our regular postings on social networks. Partly it’s in our experimentation with editorial features designed specifically for social networking sites, such as our “Ask The Economist” and “What Do You Say” events, both of which take place on Twitter. And partly it’s about making sure that discussion sparked by community features on our own site (like our online debates) is able to expand and gather pace beyond the confines of economist.com.

EZ: What’s the next big thing you’d like to see The Economist do with social media?
MJ: The Economist is active on six social networks, though to date our greatest efforts have gone into building communities on Facebook and Twitter. As the other social media sites mature we’ll be looking more closely at how better to take part in them. Despite its detractors, I’ve a hunch that Google Plus may grow in significance in the year ahead.

We’re also very excited by the opportunities presented by our own social media site – that’s to say the community at economist.com. Some recent upgrades making it easier for readers to register and to comment on our site made a huge difference both to the number of people participating and the quality of the contributions they left.

We’d like to better showcase the best contributions our very international community creates. We’d like to do more to connect like-minded individuals through our site, even if they continue those relationships elsewhere on the social web. And we’d like to think about how best to host valuable discussions beyond those that form in the comment threads beneath our articles.