How the News Industry’s Early Social Media Editors Moved Up the Ladder

It’s been almost 10 years since the first wave of “kids” had jobs with social media in the title or description. Those kids are growing up — and taking charge. This is the first in a series of profiles of people who got their starts in social media roles in newsrooms and have carried an understanding of metrics into more senior roles. “My position didn’t exist before.”

Dan Petty

That’s been a running theme for Dan Petty, hired in March to be the first digital director of audience development at Digital First Media. Petty started off as an Dow Jones News Fund intern at The Denver Post in 2009 doing digital production and multimedia, then was hired on and within a year became the paper’s first social media editor. What did the social media landscape look like in 2009? That year then-Twitter CEO Evan Williams and celebrity Ashton Kutcher went
Oprah to explain what Twitter was. Around that time, 2010 or so, “newspapers and other legacy media outlets were appointing people full time to focus on social media, because it was growing, it was a place where more and more people were getting their news content,” Petty said. “A lot of news organizations recognized that they needed somebody focused just on that specific channel.”

The whiteboard version of Dan Petty’s career, according to Petty.

Moving Up the Newsletter Ladder

After three-and-a-half years as social media editor, Petty moved across the newsroom to become the digital director of sports. A year later, he became the director of audience development. And from there, moved up to a senior editor position. “I feel like most of my career when I was at the Post was being put into areas or places where the need to think digital was high,” Petty said. “Like where they might have been doing really good things, but they wanted to accelerate growth, or accelerate thinking digitally. They might have had really good stories or good content, but what sorts of things can we consider to enhance the storytelling from a digital perspective?” Having touched many parts of the newsroom in his five roles at the Post, he sees the importance of being exposed to so many departments, especially for people who want to move into management or strategy positions. “It was really good to spend two years in Sports because they worked at a different sort of pace, thought about things different, produced content in different ways. They had their own idiosyncrasies vs. working on the Metro side or the News side.” Now Petty works for Digital First Media, the parent company of The Denver Post and dozens of other newspapers. In his current position Petty works with Digital First papers all over the country to figure out editorial strategies for achieving audience growth goals. His experience with analytics — first social, then web, and eventually mobile — is definitely important in his new role, where he carefully tracks audience growth, using many metrics including comScore’s unique visitor numbers. As others have written, it can be difficult to move up in a newsroom when someone at a higher level pigeon-holes you as “a Twitter Monkey.” Luckily for him, Petty says he had only positive experiences at the Post, but he knew it wasn’t easy everywhere. “You weren’t somebody who was coming up through a traditional pathway — reporter, deputy editor, editor,” Petty said. “Now you see people in our positions moving up the ranks very quickly. They maybe were reporters briefly or editors briefly, but many of them didn’t go through that traditional pathway but now are quickly ascending into roles. The industry is recognizing just how important they are from a strategic standpoint, having people who are really thinking about the way to craft and create digital content is incredibly valuable.” Petty says that now people who are stepping into editor roles — both at legacy publications and at digital-only sites like Buzzfeed — “their background actually is in social media primarily but they picked up these other skills along the way. How to edit, how to identify really good stories, etc. You’re just generally seeing this merging of skillsets. But for a while initially it was tough.” This is the first in a series. Did you start out in a social media position between 2005-2010? Where are you now? Get in touch with the reporter and share your experience. Julia Haslanger can be reached at Julia Haslanger worked for The Wall Street Journal last year as an audience engagement editor. She is now an engagement consultant at Hearken.
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