In Your Facebook: Why More and More Journalists Are Signing Up for the Popular Social Networking Site

Article excerpt

Six months ago, Lori Schwab decided to join the growing number of journalists with Facebook profiles. It wasn't a desperate attempt to fit in with the younger generation. Instead, the 47-year-old executive director of the Online News Association says creating accounts for herself and her association only made sense. "Facebook is now used by journalists for themselves as well as in their profession," she says, and it's become a central fact of online life.

She's not alone. More and more, journalists across the age lines are discovering the relevance of social networking sites to their lives and work. Facebook in particular has pulled in members of the field far beyond the original target college audience, leaving age-restrictive demographic delineations in the dust.

The presence of older journalists on Facebook fits the pattern of age-related trends in other areas, says freelance writer Pat Walters, 23. Younger people are often the first to jump into new turns in technology and then, if the ground proves firm enough, the more cautious, and typically older, set joins in.

In July Walters wrote about Facebook's applicability to journalists for the Poynter Institute based on "interviews" he conducted on Facebook (poyn.ter.org/column.asp?id=101&aid=127211). Thanks to the viral nature of the site, Walters was able to turn 25 invitations to his group, Journalists and Facebook, into a population of more than 1,000 by the time the story was written (more than 5,900 at last count). From there he just had to pose the question at the center of his piece--what can journalists learn from Facebook?--and the work did itself.

The age generalization is tricky because it can be difficult to separate the actual new users from the apparently savvy; after all, presence and participation are two very different things in the social networking world. For some more established journalists, particularly those who enjoy a certain amount of fame, a count of Facebook friends means nothing at all. It takes only a few clicks of the mouse to accept a friend invitation. Before you know it, folks like Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham have hundreds of friends they've never met in real life (the one offline, if you can imagine).

Across the board, social sites are a way for people to interact as they never could before (or at least, never could with such ease). For journalists that means contacting others for ideas and support on tough assignments or connecting with editors for advice and job opportunities. Many organizations have gone a step further to create groups only for members of their news outlets' networks.

It takes just a few minutes to set up a Facebook account, and from there "friending" other members and joining the site's famous groups is a piece of cake. Anyone with an Internet connection can do it.

The dam broke when Facebook became open to everyone in September 2006, and the spectrum of implications for journalists in particular has been discussed repeatedly: faster contact with younger sources on the positive end versus consideration of such an accountability-free environment on the negative. Without hurdles to jump to be part of the site or many of its groups, policing discussions can be a full-time job.

Even some of the Facebook users in Walters' group have reservations about the site. Washington Post copy editor Phillip Blanchard used the group to express his concern that the increased ease of communication brings an increased potential for fraud. "Facebook is great for 'social networking' but not terribly useful as a journalistic tool," he said in a post on the group's wall. "People aren't always who they seem to be. For example, you can't even be sure who I am. …