Ryan Osborn’s story at NBC is the prototypical tale of the young aspiring journalist going from a page on “The Today Show” in 2002 to becoming the first director of social media at NBC News. But what he’d like to do in that job is not exactly typical: Osborn wants NBC to concentrate on using Twitter and Facebook to extend the storytelling and editorial of the news organization, rather than making it purely a marketing tool.
“I bring unique experiences to the job with a background in editorial,” Osborn told me in a wide-ranging interview. “I know the organization very well and know the personalities that make it work. Primarily, we’re looking at it as another way to tell stories. And if we tell the right stories, they will market themselves. I know it sounds kind of coy but I do believe that’s our play and the way we’ll balance it moving forward. I can’t stand someone who’s promoting themselves all the time.”
Osborn, 30, is a music lover who discovered Twitter in 2007 at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. He took that back to “The Today Show,” starting a feed and thinking about ways to use social media to help connect with the audience, generate new story ideas and find more sources. Rather than relentlessly promote the show via Twitter, Osborn pushed producers to use it as a feedback loop during the show’s live broadcasts.
Now, Osborn joins the growing list of social media directors at major news organizations. He hopes to help direct the efforts of various shows while letting them birth new ideas organically. The following is an edited transcript of our recent phone conversation.
When did you first realize the power of using social media at NBC?
With our executive producer Jim Bell, I created @TodayShow [on Twitter]. At first it was an outward bound voice that put out ideas and helped us interact with the audience. I think the first story I used it on was an unemployment story, with the daily grind of looking for someone who had lost a job. I put out a call for anyone who had recently lost a job and got pretty decent responses. One of those people I featured on a taped spot I did on the show.
That was my first introduction to social media, but where I really saw the power of it was when the US Airways flight landed in the Hudson River. I was at my desk watching the coverage on TV. WNBC in New York was early to break in. I had been addicted to Summize at the time, which turned into Twitter search. I searched for “plane crash” and found Janis Krums’ picture and got it on air on MSNBC …That was an extremely powerful moment, where I knew this was something I was very interested in and it had the potential to add something to the organization.
When you were doing that search to find the picture, was it tough to get in touch with Krums to verify it?
Osborn: It was interesting because I found the picture, and it has this weird quality, there’s something almost professional about it, the way it has this glow around the plane with a golden light. It was so new that I definitely questioned it for awhile. But I tweeted back to Janis to give me a call, and put my cell phone number on the feed. He did call me back … I think the whole thing took about 20 minutes to get him on air. There was concern within the organization where you say, “I just found this source via Twitter and I want to put him on air.” There’s a concern around authenticity.
As social media outreach became more accepted at NBC, how did social media use evolve?
Osborn: Social media is such an exciting space, so there are different ideas there every day. So it’s a struggle to focus on clear objectives. We’ve slowly got our anchors and personalities on Twitter and other spaces and figured out what suits them best. Ann Curry has been a great example of somebody who’s really engaged in using the space effectively. I’ve done a couple events with her, we did the 140 Characters event together. She had some success covering the Iran elections and social media, and tells some great stories around that. When the earthquake happened in Haiti, she found some great sources via Twitter.
How did social media work up until now? Did every show decide how to use it or was there an overall strategy?
Osborn: It came down to the individuals within a given show. It’s an interesting study in organization, which isn’t really your interest or mine. I consider myself a storyteller and very much on the editorial side of things. As far as how much you integrate ideas from younger people in an organization and try to make them happen, and at the same time try to incorporate them into some kind of overall strategy, that position has never existed and that’s why I’m in this job today.
I don’t want to discourage those ideas from flowing out of our newsrooms. That’s really where they’re going to come from. If I really do my job well it won’t be what it is today, but be more of trying to pull together specific leaders from each news division.
Do you think you’re getting more buy-in from the top, because it seems like most of these initiatives start out lower down the organizational chain.
Osborn: The creation of my job has helped get more buy-in from the top. Social media is something that’s so new that it can be perceived as something that’s disruptive. And for a prestigious news organization like ours, we have to make sure we’re doing things right. I think there’s been some healthy skepticism, and that’s good, and there’s always been a natural tension between what we’ve been doing as NBC News for years and what we’ll continue to do and how we evolve that. I know it’s something that news organizations across the board are dealing with.
Other than Ann Curry, are there others at MSNBC or NBC you can point to and say “this has really worked for us”?
Osborn: I know that Rachel Maddow has created a really good community around her show. When you talk about social media it’s not a gimmick, it’s about the content itself, it’s about the actual shows themselves and the stories we’re telling. I think her show has innovated in the space and made a deeper connection with the audience.
Chuck Todd is also a good example within our organization … he’s a multimedia machine. Howard Kurtz recently profiled him in the Washington Post and it’s an interesting read on how a network correspondent’s job has evolved.
We’ve created a model on “The Today Show” where we have a couple producers in the control room trying to create a live experience. We have our senior producer, Don Nash, who is @Studio1aDon, whose follower count is relatively low  but as far as the reach of a very engaged audience, it’s a smart idea.
So during the show, he’ll be on there doing a running commentary, giving behind-the-scenes details?
Osborn: Exactly. He uses it as a kind of listening post. What we want to avoid is promoting all the time. We want to create two-way experiences where we’re listening to the audience and integrating it into what we’re doing. That kind of model is interesting to me. The social space is the first place we’ve seen the eyeballs of a two-screen experience make sense for what we’re trying to do, and that’s why it’s so exciting … I don’t see myself as being on the tech side of things. I like thinking about the trans-media storytelling.
Osborn talks about how “The Today Show” might engage its audience even more in the real world:
What do you think will be the biggest challenges in doing this job?
Osborn: The biggest challenge is balancing the excitement with the space with using the tools in the proper way. I want people to focus and tap into the social space for telling stories and finding sources, but at the same time don’t let it distract you from our core mission. So many people look at social media as a gimmick, it’s a quick fix for viewer engagement. You get in a meeting and someone wants to set up a Twitter account or a Facebook page, and I love those things. But I don’t want people to lose focus on the content itself.
Social Media Policies
Do you have a social media policy as far as what people can say and can’t say on their feeds?
Osborn: We have a Standards & Practices which we’ve spent a long time looking at and our lawyers have worked on. I think my role is communicating that in accessible ways to our newsrooms. Simple things like if you’re on a plane and you say you don’t like this airline, and then you cover that airline the next week, how will that jeopardize your position as an unbiased reporter or producer? It’s something I want our people to start thinking about. The policies are in place but I think we could do a much better job communicating them.
Are there similar rules against talking about competitors or the workplace?
Osborn: No. There are some technicalities, but we want people to be themselves and encourage that; we want them to know that in some way the new reality is that they are representing NBC News and need to think about that. The funny thing for me is that I’ve become more comfortable under the guise of
TodayShow than on my personal feed "rozzy”:http://www.twitter.com/rozzy because I do know the power of these things and I do know how a tweet lives on forever on a Google search.
You have a Posterous blog and your personal Twitter feed. How will those work moving forward?
Osborn: Those Posterous exchanges were a way for me to get out quick ideas and communicate to my immediate network what was going on. I’m hoping that as we evolve we can create a home for that in our network, whether as a blog or another transparent conversation to engage the audience. I’m a big fan of Posterous and Tumblr and would love to see us integrate them in some way. That kind of conversation would be really interesting from an organizational standpoint.
I’ve befriended Jen Preston, [social media editor] at the New York Times, and they follow the model of
NYT_JenPreston, and I don't know... It's something that I've thought about a lot, and is Ryan_NBC more professional? I want people to know me and know the human side of our organization, so I didn't want to set the example to have NBC in your Twitter handle. It's an interesting debate and I could talk about it for awhile. I'm leaning toward keeping rozzy. I would love to have @RyanOsborn but I didn’t get it in time.
I think the power of these things is in revealing the humans behind the brands. If I can be more effective as @rozzy, than so be it.
How do you convince people at NBC to be more personal? Some of them might have a problem revealing too many personal details, or they feel like it could be a time sink. How do you win them over?
Osborn: I think they have a lot to gain from the social space. If you’re working in media today, it’s an exciting place to experiment and that’s my sell internally. Whether you like talking about music or media, there’s a lot of interesting things in there for a lot of different people. It’s an interesting place to gain exposure and as a journalist to get more sources and hear ideas. We as individuals have a lot to gain by engaging in the space.
What’s your take on Facebook? Do you think each show, each anchor, each producer should have their own Facebook page or would you get more power aggregating that?
Osborn: I’d love to see each personality have a Facebook page. It’s up to the individual and what they want to get out of it. When you look at the shows and the way the audiences overlap, Facebook becomes attractive and the user base itself is something we have great respect for. I think there are a lot more interesting ways we could use it.
As a journalist, I’ve searched for different groups or we’ve built groups around different events, but I haven’t integrated that into my storytelling yet. We had a success story where we searched status updates on Facebook and did use it for a “Today Show” story. I view it as a much deeper connection that lasts longer than what you find on Twitter. We look at it as another way to engage consumers.
Osborn explains how they will measure success beyond just page views:
What do you think about NBC’s efforts in social media so far? Do you think media companies should use social media for promotion, marketing, editorial or a combination of those things? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.