Social Media for Journalists: An Interview with John Le Fevre

Posted: May 23, 2011 in Week #16

“Don’t forget what the role of journalists is. It’s not about popularity; it’s not about fame or fortune. It’s about people, your community, society, humanity. Stay focused. Be smarter.” – John Le Fevre

Meet John Le Fevre, a Social Network Marketing expert who’s been working as a professional journalist, photographer, and editor for over 15 years. For the past three years, Le Fevre has served as Director at Pattaya Web Services in Thailand, providing Web design and rehabilitation as well as running his own photojournalism Web site (www.photo-journ.com) that publishes news, reviews, analysis, features, and photographs of events taking place in Thailand and Southeast Asia. Known for his “alternative views,” Le Fevre always presents a fresh take on current events that include human rights, politics, tourism, and travel.

I’ve spent the past month following John on Twitter and have enjoyed viewing the photo editorials on his blog. His recent coverage of Thailand’s Miss Tiffany Universe pageant was both progressive and inspiring for the transgender communities of Southeast Asia. After reading Le Fevre’s thought-provoking comments in the Online reporters and editors group on LinkedIn (in response to Shari Weiss’s question about Facebook for journalists), I knew he would be the perfect journalist to interview for our final course assignment.

The Art of Journalism

How and why did you become a journalist?

I completed a four-year cadetship with a privately owned news service named Australian Photographic and News Service (APNS) in 1981. Cadetships are the traditional training method for journalists in Australia and are similar to an apprenticeship, though all training is completed in-house.

APNS was more progressive than newspapers at the time, training its staff in both press photography and journalism. This was an ongoing issue with the Australian Journalists Association (now the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance) who were strongly opposed to multi-skilling.

My motivation for choosing journalism as a vocation was based on a desire to seek out the truth and share it with others. I guess the likes of Walter Cronkite and Woodward and Bernstein were influences on choosing journalism as a career.

Do you feel that the ubiquity of news stories and viral media has diluted the quality of journalistic content? If so, what remedy would you prescribe?

There have always been varying levels of professionalism and quality of media since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Though modern technology makes it easier for anyone to be a “publisher,” and while globally falling levels of education have seen the lowest common denominator fall, quality journalism will always prevail because there will always be journalists not prepared to sacrifice quality and committed to the tenets of the profession.

Anyone entering journalism and expecting a sedate life is choosing the wrong profession. Professional journalists need to maintain the fire and commitment to turning out the best researched and written (or broadcast) material possible given the time constraints they are working under at the time.

Be first, but be right, is one maxim that I have drilled into cadets over the years. If you can’t be first, be better, i.e., more in-depth, more detail, find an angle different to everyone else.

Journalism is not a career for the faint-hearted and the growing propensity for some people to chase viral results is really no different to what Fox News, the National Enquirer or The Sun (UK) have done for many years.

There will always be a market for this style of media and while it might attract a lot of page views, its effect on quality journalism is, overall, rather minimal.

Journalists being more accessible to their readers (viewers/listeners) is one way to counter the affects of those who aim low.

Whereas in the past it was simply good enough to write (broadcast) the story and go on to the next, in the 21st-century journalists need to be prepared to explain or fill in aspects of a story if the details or situations are complex.

Journalism is no longer a one-way street. Journalists must be more accountable and by being so, their credibility increases.

How do you verify the credibility of information you find online?

Checking, checking and more checking. One of the greatest “whipping boys” of the Internet age has been Wikipedia, with its open source nature being constantly criticized.

In reality Wikipedia is, because of the number of people contributing to topics, an excellent starting point when researching topics and generally provides very good basic information with numerous off-site cited sources.

In the late 80s someone (I forget who now) described the Internet as “the world’s largest collection of garbage cans,” but added, “if you go through enough garbage cans you eventually find something of interest/value.”

It’s a very brave, or foolish, journalist who ever relies on one source for any story, no matter how good that source is. A vital skill for every journalist is knowing how to use the power of search engines properly—the difference between search terms contained in quotes, and those without.

Search engine optimization means that searching for the same information using different search terms is a must. More importantly, journalists need to go past page one of SERPs [Search Engine Results Page].

For me, I find my followers on Twitter to be invaluable in verifying information obtained from other sources and I will often direct message people I think may be able to help, but that is largely because with Twitter I focus on following quality people.

With journalists becoming more mobile and having the ability to post instantaneous stories, how has the editorial process changed? Are submissions still scrutinized and organized by an editor?

One of the greatest tools available to journalists today, in my opinion, is Twitter. During the political protests in Bangkok last year I live tweeted constantly from the field—even as Thai army bullets were whizzing over my head.

The tweets by journalists in the field at the time were invaluable to other journalists covering the protests, as their tweets were invaluable to me, in addition to getting the news out to the world on what was happening in real time.

Did it dilute the impact of the story that was written at the end of each day? No. Did it engage readers? Absolutely.

It also provided editors back in the office with information, a record of what was happening, and where I was. Live tweeting enables rough outlines of stories to be started to be pulled together by the newsroom, while journalists in the field are still heading back to the newsroom or somewhere where they can write their story.

It engages the readers/viewers by putting them on the spot in real time. Those same people are going to want to read more in the full story when it’s published, so I personally see no harm in journalists taking their audience along for the ride when they are covering breaking news.

The days of copy-takers having stories dictated to them over the phone are long gone. While some publications enable journalists to instantly upload stories to the Internet, my personal feeling is this ability needs to be used with caution.

Hurriedly written stories from the field inevitably contain typos, poor punctuation, grammatical errors, and often poor structure, which detract from the professionalism of the writer and the publication. Most quality publications will stream in-field reports through copy editors before stories are allowed to go live.

Newsrooms need to be flexible, with copy editors able to switch from working on the next day’s print edition to handling field-submitted copy efficiently and rapidly. This comes down to each organization, the News Editor and the Chief of Staff being flexible, and the publication having appropriate policies in place to handle rapidly breaking news.

At the end of the day a journalist’s salary comes from advertising revenue and for most publications that revenue still comes from advertising in the printed edition. Therefore a balance needs to be struck between what is put up online immediately and what is held for the next day’s print edition.

Though everyone likes to be first, the checks and balances of having at least one set of eyes other than the writer’s look over a story before it is made public is an extremely important safety net for the journalist, as well as the employer.

What kind of advice would you give to an aspiring online journalist?

The first thing would be, never forget why you chose journalism as a career and remain truthful to those reasons irrespective of how difficult a situation gets. Don’t forget what the role of journalists is. It’s not about popularity; it’s not about fame or fortune. It’s about people, your community, society, humanity. Stay focused. Be smarter.

Every journalist today has vastly more potential to have their work viewed by a far greater audience than journalists have ever had in the past. Maintain pride in your work, stay true to the profession and never compromise your principles.

Journalism is not a job, it’s much more than that. We are the gatekeepers, the people that others turn to when other avenues fail them.

There should be no difference in the standard and quality you apply to your work because it is appearing online than you would if it is appearing in a state, or national publication. Every time a journalist compromises quality they not only hurt themselves, but demonstrate disrespect for those who stood firm in the face of criticism and adversity in the past.

Be proud of your work and always strive to disclose as much as possible. The beauty of online journalism is that you are not bound by page size as much as print journalists were in the past. You have the luxury of being able to add more detail and explain more. But also remember, your readers will die of old age early enough without you boring them to death.

Facebook

How has Facebook changed (if at all) the way you pursue and distribute stories, and how will these changes affect the future of journalism?

It really hasn’t. I’m not a big fan of Facebook due to the constant breaches of privacy and attempts by Facebook to grab copyright to images posted on it in the past—the same as Twitpic tried to do just recently.

While I have a Facebook page I don’t spend much time on it and feel no inclination to share my private life with the world. If I want to communicate with friends, I do so directly.

Journalists should be aware of their own personal safety. Posting too much information can be hazardous. If people are lonely and want some attention then buy a dog or a cat, but don’t be so stupid as to put personal contact details onto public forums where people with less than pure motives can access and it.

In many countries around the world today there are government departments who would love to have such details on journalists and bloggers in their country.

I am not convinced of the integrity of a lot of information placed on Facebook and have never used Facebook as a primary or even secondary information source.

My Facebook page carries an automatic feed from my news blog and I’ll post links to my blog on my page, but the value of those links, apart from sending some traffic, is negligible because all Facebook links are “nofollow.”

Nofollow is a search engine optimization (SEO) technique that tells Google and other search engines not to follow the link to the referenced site. In reality the search engine spiders do follow the link, but it does not pass on any of the SEO Page Rank to the followed site.

Facebook is attempting to entice journalists to post their news on Facebook and the only beneficiary for this is Facebook. By being a large, popular (with search engines) Web site, it is crawled by search engines more frequently than other Web sites, which means people searching for a particular topic or phrase are more likely to be directed to Facebook than the original source of the material.

More page impressions of its advertising means more revenue for Facebook.

While I see there some benefits in providing public domain photos and perhaps a little background on individuals or companies from Facebook pages, I prefer to go to an official company Web site to ensure the information is accurate, or even a third party Web site such as Wikipedia where inaccurate information is more likely to be questioned by the numerous people who maintain its pages, or the company itself.

For commercial use and relationship building I would rather use LinkedIn.

Can you elaborate more on what you said about Facebook constantly changing and abusing privacy laws?

There’s been no shortage of reports of Facebook changing its terms of service and passing people’s information to advertisers, in fact the threat still exists for thousands of Facebook profile holders according to a report out in early May 2011.

Facebook has also attempted to claim ownership of photos people uploaded to their account, as did Twitpic in early May 2010. Copyright to photos and other artistic works is extremely important as people are constantly looking for images they can use to accompany editorial.

Likewise, spam is an ever increasing problem, and who wants to be on any more junk mail lists than they are already?

 Is there any real way to verify whether a FB page/profile is genuine and not a hoax?

Lots of companies start Profiles or Pages and never return to them. Others infrequently update the material and as such, they might not be aware of false or damaging information posted on their pages.

If you start a Facebook page, you need to constantly keep checking it and maintaining it, otherwise there is no point in having one.

Because I don’t rely on Facebook and rarely use it, I’m unaware of how to differentiate fact from fake on Facebook and therefore would treat anything I find with some suspicion.

The age-old maxim of journalism, “believe half of what you see and none of what you read,” has never been more applicable than in the 21st-century with the vast number of fake or agenda-biased Web sites in existence.

What exactly did you mean when you referred to FB as “old school”?

With Facebook you post a message on someone else’s or your own Wall, or on their Page and then hope that someone responds—much the same as trying to sell a used TV on a community noticeboard at the local supermarket or corner store.

A response might be fast or might never come. For journalists Twitter is a much more viable service and time spent searching and finding Twitter addresses for companies or people in the industry sector where you have an interest is much more rewarding.

With Twitter, the correct balance of followers and people you follow is able to produce much more time critical responses than using Facebook. Several times already, I have used Twitter to ask pointed questions to people, including the CEO of Nok Air, and each time I’ve received answers publicly, almost immediately, that I’ve used in stories.

Do you feel that FB is on- or off-the-record material and why?

In my opinion, anything published on Faceboook, Hi-5, or any other social media site is on-the-record and fair game to be used, though care is needed to identify the source accurately to guard against quoting from a spoof site, or maliciously placed information.

If people don’t want their actions or photos used, they shouldn’t be publishing them in a publicly accessible forum.

The only exception would be where a user might post a public statement preventing the use of material on their Profile or Page.

Journalists need to be especially careful that the Fred Graham they are writing about is the same person whose Facebook, Hi-5, or other reference source is referring to. Getting it wrong can be expensive and embarrassing.

Why do you think FB is set up as a “No Follow”?

Setting “no follow” attributes on outbound links is to preserve the originating Web site’s Page Ranking. The more outbound links from a Web site, the more it dilutes the page ranking. The more inbound links, the higher it rises.

There’s about 200 parts of the algorithm that Google uses to rank a page in SERPs and Page Rank is the result that primarily shows the nubbier of inbound links to a Web site.

The higher up in SERPs a Web site gets, the higher the click-thru rate. The higher the click-thru rate, the more page impressions of advertising, which equals more financial return to monetized sites such as Facebook.

Twitter

How do journalists benefit from using Twitter?

Twitter enables journalists or publications to engage with their audience. It provides a previously unheard of venue for individuals or an organization to communicate with their audiences (advertising, editorial, stockholders, etc), as well as a way for instant information and news tips.

The real-time aspect of Twitter, as well as the interactivity possible, has immense value for journalists making two screens per desktop, with one running a Twitter feed—an almost necessity for those staying constantly updated on events, news, occurrences, etc.

The beauty of Twitter is that you can take your source of contacts on the road with you, be receiving constantly updated information from multiple sources while en route or onsite, and have those people check or confirm information while an event is happening.

For journalists, Twitter is the 21st-century solution to scrambled police channels, or the use of cellphones by law-enforcement agencies and others.

What is your reaction to the “self-made” or “self-proclaimed” journalist on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.?

There’s a huge benefit to be gained from citizen-journalism. Obviously there are some very good people doing this, and some who do a less than stellar job. Well researched and written bloggers often have a range of impressive contacts for information and can be quite influential in some industry sectors.

It’s now not just those who own a printing press who can exert influence on a community or industry. The fact that blogs don’t need to quote sources or comply to any professional standard, unless doing so voluntarily, means many do not operate under the same code of practice that journalists and publications do. This is a concern.

Personally, I run a blog disclosure policy on my Web sites, and though there is no way of anyone proving or disproving that I abide by it, it is a public on-record statement that could bite me on the bum if I am found dishonoring it.

Many of the better blogs on the Internet are written by casualties of newspaper cutbacks over the last few years and offer extremely high value content. People are able to make up their own minds soon enough as to whether the material is legitimate or not.

For bloggers/Web site owners the ability to engage with their readers via social media such as Twitter is an important aspect of establishing and/or reinforcing their credentials. Those that don’t allow and respond to comments, quote and link to off-site reference sources, or engage their readership should be viewed suspiciously.

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Comments
  1. Insightful interview, very well written, and I really like your use of format.

  2. Pepper Luboff says:

    It’s helpful to learn of the distinctions between Facebook and Twitter in regards to journalism. I never thought about how Twitter might be a more credible source, and it’s refreshing to hear someone validate Wikipedia as a jumping-off point for research. . . If you ever get a chance to interview Le Fevre again, I’d be interested to know how the role/influence of advertisers has changed with online/social media journalism. Do advertisers have greater or lesser influence?

    • The influence of advertisers has always been regulated by (1) the honesty and integrity of a media publisher/ owner and (2) the personal integrity of the journalist.

      With citizen journalists, as well as others who run their own websites or blogs, the separation between the two is often blurred and it is for that reason that I advocate serious online news sources to make disclosure on their websites generally, as well as for any article where people could perceive comment for cash (or other reward) has occurred.

      Recently on my newsblog (and for a couple of clients) I wrote about a new range of “Australian” meat pies being available in Thailand.

      I think the review was fairly impartial (though it was a bit tongue-in-cheek) and it highlighted some shortcomings in the product, but overall was fairly favorable. I still nonetheless included the statement: “Disclosure: No direct or indirect compensation was made, received or solicited for this article. We paid for own pies.” at the bottom of the article.

      Likewise, when I wrote abut Singapore Airlines and Changi Airport in 2008 I added the disclosure: “No incentive, gratuity, or payment, either in cash or kind, was made by, or received from, Singapore Airlines or any other entity in exchange for this article.”

      These days it’s not good enough to just disclose when an incentive, free ticket, or hotel voucher has been received, but important for online reporters to make the clarification whenever a conflict could reasonably be perceived.

      At the same time, one popular online Forum in Thailand, Thaivisa.com, which also re-writes news and publishes syndicated and news-wire material, has a blanket policy of not allowing Forum members to criticize advertisers.

      Fair enough, that’s their call and it’s their Forum and people can make up their own mind about whether they think they receive impartial advise or discussion on it when the owner puts his hip-pocket above the rights of the Forum members. The same Forum constantly espouses how man members it has, but doesn’t allow people to resign from it and doesn’t delete inactive or banned members from it’s mailing list.

      PROs and advertising companies have always feted journalists and most quality publications have a policy in what can and cannot be accepted.

      Being corrupted is more a state of mind than the size of the gift. Though obviously the size of the gift makes it easier to be corrupted. In the mid 1980s I received a $10,000 bank check through the mail at the newspaper I was working on. I had been writing regularly about the goings-on at a large, multi-national IT company and I think my reference to its courtyard fountain and the Tehran fountain of blood struck some nerves.

      In any event, there was nothing to identify where this check came from, or from who. We photographed the check, donated to a children’s hospital, and went on writing about the company. Of course the company PRO was livid and couldn’t help himself but to phone and fairly quickly, in a round-about way, got to the topic of the check and a general discussion about gifts, etc.

      I still recall the spluttering when he was told he had three seconds to hang up the phone or else everything from that point would be considered on the record. As he protested I counted down. “Andrew, you have 3, 2, 1” “click-brrrrr” as the line disconnected.

      When I worked on Vietnam News as the chief copy editor in the HCMC Bureau, Foster’s, an Australian beer brewer opened a local manufacturing facility. Vietnam law prohibits the copy editors from reporting so the local staff went to the opening – after receiving their invitation in an envelope with the requisite cash donation “to pay for transport”.

      When the seasoned bureau journalist returned he banged out an 800-word diatribe full of eloquent superlatives such as: “Australia’s largest brewer”, Australia’s best beer”, Australia’s favorite beer”, “Australia’s most loved beer”, etc.

      He proudly displayed the pen, ball-cap, notepad, writing portfolio, branded drinking glasses and various other items that formed part of the press kit. He failed to mention the two cases of Fosters beer strapped to the back of his motorbike.

      When his story was subbed back to about 250-words – what the story was worth – he was most concerned about not being invited to any further events.

      Pressure from advertisers (and PROs) is only likely to increase as the online environment becomes more important. It’s up to the individual as to how much they will allow their writing to be influenced by any incentive.

      Disclosure is the best way counter any claims of corruption, as well as remembering why you became a journalist in the first place.

      Advertising is not evil, but buying some space is not (or should not) be a form of insurance either.

      All journalists should remember the words of Albert Einstein: The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing

  3. […] Social Media for Journalists: An Interview with John Le Fevre […]

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