Traditionally, “the news” has been a pretty serious business. It’s about getting facts across, explaining them, giving context. It’s not about being your friend. Certainly not about asking you questions or making you laugh.

And then along came social media.

On these new and emerging digital platforms, the language is casual and interaction is the name of the game, not one-directional publishing or advertising. As a result, news outlets need to evolve, and go through a process of self-development similar, I’m guessing, to the one my mother had to when she realized that the best way to keep up to date with my life on the other side of the world was to join Facebook.

Nowadays, major news organizations have social media teams who work in conjunction with editorial and management to craft an online persona. Smart outlets write guidelines according to which their social media activities are run, and then “community management” staff take care of the footwork of setting up and maintaining profiles on social sites, responding to users, research, and posting content. Much of the success or failure of these efforts lies in the ability of the news organization to match their personality to the medium.

Unlike in other industries, for news outlets running social media isn’t a PR-advertising role; it is a journalistic position. So while these professionals tend to be “young and hip,” they also need a thorough understanding of the news; of whether their Facebook fans are looking for breaking news or in-depth analysis pieces, opinion or lifestyle stories or all of the above. Coordination is crucial as staying on top of everything going on in the news as well as everything in the social media sphere is incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

One saving grace is that on social media, contrary to traditional media, it’s perfectly okay to ask followers what they want. The aim is engagement. On Facebook that means likes and comments and shares, on Twitter it’s retweets and mentions, plus ones on Google plus, pins on Pintrest and so on. The key is not to use these sites as just another way to promote products and services or in this case, content, but rather to create a dialogue.

The Washington Post’s facebook application – the Social Reader – is an example of a news organization trying to get ahead of the ball. The app, which was developed in line with Facebook’s Open Graph system, lets users see what their friends have been reading, includes full articles rather than links, and allows comments from inside Facebook. In other words, it brings the website experience over to Facebook. This seems to work for the readers, presumably because people who are on Facebook like it, and want to stay there.

The Guardian has launched a similar app, along with Yahoo! News, The Huffington Post, The Independent and The Daily. These media giants have managed to retain something of the traditional media and yet move it over to Facebook, taking the best of both worlds. Of course, developing such apps requires significant resources, which aren’t available to most news outlets these days.

Luckily for the majority, though, it’s not necessarily the best move. What the Open Graph technology has actually done, apart from providing readers with something cool which means that people may read more news articles than they would have otherwise, is create a series of mini sites within Facebook. It’s clear to see how this works in Facebook’s favor, as well as for readers, but it might not be the best move for the news outlet.

The New York Times has taken a different approach. Take, for example, the Facebook “timeline” that the Times launched last week. The page, which boasts some two million fans, announced in a post which drew thousands of “likes” and hundreds of comments and shares, that it had posted “select moments from our 160+ year history” along the newly designed page. “Come into the newsroom on the night of the 1928 presidential election. See our reporters at work during the 1977 blackout. You’ll even find a guest appearance by Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s,” the post continued, encouraging readers to scroll through the photos and posts scattered down the page. Brilliant thinking. Not tacky, not trying to sell anything, just giving readers added value and enjoyment.

Granted, most news organizations aren’t the New York Times, but it’s still something to think about. The Times has a long history and well-established branding, so if it can find a way to social media-arize itself, arguably anyone can. Children these days seem to be born with an understanding of how these new platforms function and how they can be used. Not so for adults, and not so for news organizations.

The Times’ social media manager, Liz Heron, writes in a casual, friendly tone to her 325,000 Facebook fans, keeping them updated on the Times’ social media efforts, sure, but also social media in general. Though not as flashy, this shows a truer understanding of new media than the aforementioned apps. The New York paper is letting its 21st-century digital personality shine through and giving its readers added value and enjoyment, rather than being proper and stuffy as traditional media is “meant to be.”

Al Jazeera English, to cite another example, had the annoying habit of cramming my Facebook News Feed with story after story around 9 a.m. I say had, because I no longer subscribe to the page. If I wanted to see everything on its site, I’d pull up the site – which is exactly what I do now. On Facebook, users are looking for something different. Something lighter, interactive and new. Sharing links is what individuals do on social networks – news outlets need to do more than just follow suit.

On Twitter the challenge is even more refined, and it almost all comes down to word choice. Smart wordplay is key, and humor plays a big part. A barrier to smart Twitter usage seems to be that it’s too easy to just post a headline, chuck in a link and be done with it. Tweets also have a very short shelf life – once they’ve been bumped off the main feed they’re gone, unless they go viral and get retweeted. So posts need to catch the user quickly if they’re to achieve their aim – be it for the reader to click, view, think or laugh.

Time magazine’s Twitter feed is a good – though by no means exceptional – example of balance between simple headline-plus-link Tweets, questions and funny quips. The feed posts around once an hour – not so much that followers feel flooded, and yet enough to keep its distinctive logo out there.

The Drudge Report’s Twitter feed, on the other hand, is an example of a common news-site-come-social-media-player mistake. The aggregate site’s well-written headlines lend themselves perfectly to 140 character posts, so it looks like it’s just set up its Twitter feed via RSS. This means that its Tweets come through in batches of two to five posts at a time, and followers can end up feeling like they’re being spammed. Using a program which schedules and spreads out the posts would be an easy fix. Nana10 and Arutz Sheva, incidentally, would do well to follow the same advice.

Locally, it’s even more of a new and emerging market. Israeli media outlets are only just starting to craft their online personas, and while Facebook can be used in Hebrew, a lot of the back-end resources have yet to be translated. Twitter is a few steps behind still, though this should be rectified later this year when the Hebrew version is rolled out.

Israel’s leading news site, Ynet, is Tweeting headlines and links, and if it’s the industry leader than it doesn’t take much imagination to guess what the rest of the players are doing. On Facebook there are attempts at creativity out there, such as Walla! News which reserves one of its top content slots on the site for a social media story, and the Haaretz weekly news quiz which refers readers to its Facebook page.

These news outlets’ efforts indicate an understanding of the importance of crafting an online persona, despite the fact that Israelis tend to be news junkies and are probably happier than most with the straight-to-the-point hard news stories and posts.

It’s about asking – or indeed telling – users to do something; once online people don’t just want to passively read – they want to get involved. Whether that means tweeting, sharing, liking or plus one-ing, the online players that reach out to people – rather than just shoving products in their faces – are the ones who’ve done the best job at crafting their online personalities.

A big part of social media policy planning, as with most strategic planning, is to establish aims. News sites, like all other businesses trying their luck in new media, are looking to acquire and maintain fans or followers, track the competition, and work on branding. What’s interesting is that it’s what organizations do on the first two points that determines their social media activity’s affect on the fourth. That is to say, as news outlets go about the business of getting their content across to readers on yet another medium, they are simultaneously sculpting their new media personas.

The leading news outlets in the social media sphere are the ones that people are happy to see when their posts pop up. Pumping out headline-plus-link posts over and over is synonymous with sending all of your friends invitations to play Farmville every day: everyone but your mother and your best friends (read: everyone but the most loyal readers) is going to either block your posts or defriend you before long.

The writer is The Jerusalem Post's Internet desk manager

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