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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

Lately Facebook has been trumpeting its prowess in driving traffic to news sites. In a blog post a couple weeks ago, Facebook media guy Justin Osofsky crowed that Facebook was now the number one referral site to SportingNews.com and that the Washington Post saw Facebook referral traffic grow 280 percent year-over-year. That’s certainly impressive, but the New York Times website continues to get the majority of traffic from its own home page.

That’s right. People just type “N-Y-T-I-M-E-S.-C-O-M” into their web browsers to read the stories there (at least until the pay wall comes). In a discussion with New York Times assistant managing editor Jim Roberts, I learned that on most days 50 percent to 60 percent of the site’s traffic comes from people starting at the home page. Roberts said Facebook referral traffic was important — and growing — but noted that the home page still remained the top referrer.

Still, Roberts has a lot to celebrate when it comes to the New York Times on Facebook. Its main Facebook page recently surpassed 1 million fans, leading all other U.S. newspapers, and it’s considering a new strategy that would break out more sections into their own Facebook pages. Here are some relevant stats for NY Times’ social media feeds:

> @NYTimes on Twitter has 2,845,559 followers
> The NYTimes Facebook page has 1,052,752 fans
> Over 450,000 NYTimes.com users have opted to ‘Log In with Facebook’ to make comments on the site

All this is happening while the organization’s org chart is being changed to reflect print and web convergence. Roberts himself went from being the lead editor of news at NYTimes.com to assistant managing editor on Jan. 1.

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Jim Roberts

“The previous job was a little bit amorphous bit it was basically directing the news coverage of the site, breaking news, multimedia and social media,” he told me. “[With the new job] I will have one foot in print and one in the website. We’re breaking down our structure, we had a staff of producers who were solely producing the digital product. They reported through a centralized digital management structure. That’s going to be broken down. My job will be much more managing news across the news organization as a whole rather than just the digital portion.”

Over the holidays, I spoke to Roberts about the Times’ overall social media strategy, the shift as previous social media editor Jen Preston vacates her role, and the manpower issues that swirl around who will manage which feeds. The following is an edited transcript (with audio clips) of our phone conversation.

Q&A

How did you get to 1 million fans on Facebook?

Jim Roberts: I consider our Facebook strategy part of a broader approach to social media. While certain things are done specifically on and with Facebook, it’s only one of the social media tools we pay attention to. When I talk about our efforts … I think of it as an overall strategy instead of a Facebook strategy.

In some ways we’ve been as successful on Twitter as on Facebook … We have close to 3 million followers on our main Twitter feed and we’ve been very successful taking advantage of that platform.

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Have you noticed any trends for the way people are coming to your site through Facebook and Twitter? I’ve seen a big bump in those referrals here at MediaShift, with Facebook becoming the main driver of traffic. Are you seeing that too?

Roberts: It’s not our main driver of traffic, but we’re seeing a steady increase over the past few years. I can only expect it to continue. I don’t have the raw statistics to show that increase, but we still get the vast majority of traffic through our home page, whether it’s people who type out the NYTimes.com URL or bookmark it. We still get 50 percent to 60 percent of our traffic on some days through the home page.

And Google search, I assume?

Roberts: Google search continues to be a big component, and we get a lot of referral traffic from sites like Drudge Report, Huffington Post, Daily Beast. Social media probably ranks several notches down after the home page and search engines and some of those referral sites. I totally expect [social media referrals] to increase.

But I see our appeal in social media as much more than page views. It sounds a little cliche, but we develop a relationship with our readers in social media that transcends page views.

Will your social media strategy have to change with the coming pay wall at the Times?

Roberts: I don’t know that it changes, but it becomes ever more important. The metered model that we will institute will only benefit with an engaged readership. In a lot of ways that can be enhanced by social media. To me the benefit of social media is not just increasing page views but as a way of developing a more personal connection with your audience. You can talk to them, and they can talk to you….You can’t ignore the page view impact, the distribution mechanism that social media does enhance. So from a distribution standpoint and an engagement standpoint, it’s very important to us as we go to a metered model.

Roberts describes how he sometimes shocks people by responding to them via Twitter:

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Tell me how you’re using social media editorially. I’ve seen reporters work sources via Twitter or get story ideas that way. How are you using it?

Roberts: We’re still experimenting, but a lot of reporters have found individualized ways to use it to develop sources of information and bring people into the reporting process. I can think of one or two reporters in particular who have begun to use Twitter … in some ways, it’s a promotional device because they are directing people to pieces that they’re working on. But they don’t just throw up a link. In some ways you can see pieces develop before your very eyes.

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Brian Stelter

Who are the people you are talking about who use Twitter really well at the Times?

Roberts: Well, Brian Stelter is the most obvious one. He certainly uses it in a smart and aggressive way. I’d point to him first as someone who’s really learned the value of building a unique audience. In a crass way, you could say he’s building it around him, but I really think he’s building it around the subject matter. He writes about television and media in general. He has a good following and people go to him because they think they’re going to get quality information delivered quickly.

What he’s been doing with Twitter is using it for building blocks for blog items and longer stories, both on the web and print. How he’s using it is something I could see other reporters picking up on.

Roberts explains how a reporter might use Twitter to develop a blog post, eventually creating a longer story for print in the Times:

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With Jen Preston moving on and not being the social media editor, who’s in charge of the overall New York Times Facebook page?

Roberts: I’ll tell you who will be. It may sound like I’m dodging the subject but I think we will disperse a lot of the Facebook effort to a number of people. The main page … my intent is — and we have a step or two to take before we get to this point — the intent is to get the main page into the hands of the basic news desk, so it becomes a bit more a part of our overall publishing strategy. It’s not intended to be a true publishing platform, but it’s a way for people to access our material and our site. Our desire is to have some of our news editors involved in deciding what stories ought to get the most prominence and ought to be updated.

Aside from the main news portion of Facebook, when you break down into specific areas such as culture, sports and politics, our goal would be to have the editors in charge of those subject areas manage those pages.

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How do you decide to break out a specific topic into its own Facebook page?

Roberts: That’s all part of the experimental nature of our relationship with Facebook. We’re still trying to figure out what works best. We put a lot of effort into a couple pages devoted to culture. Jennifer [Preston] really saw these through. One is devoted to movies, the other one to Broadway theater. There are a couple people who are working as producers on the website on those subjects, and we asked them to devote a chunk of their time managing those Facebook pages, to aggressively update them and try to think of ways to get users to interact with them.

I think the jury is still out in how much benefit we get from those efforts. We’re still trying to figure out whether it’s worth our while. My gut instinct is it’s definitely is worth our while and that if we can do that on subjects from politics to sports, we’d like to do more of that.

How did things change with Jen Preston going from social media editor to a reporter? How do you see things changing organizationally?

Roberts: I’m going to make a stab at it, but I’m probably going to answer that question differently in six months or a year from now. I’ll go back to those experiments we did in the movies and theater section. An editor, in politics for instance, who works with the reporting staff to stay on top of developments, might be put in charge of managing the New York Times politics Facebook page. The one component that keeps coming up is the manpower issue. When we do things like this we want to do them smartly.

Roberts explains how the Times must be careful in balancing the time needed to manage social media with other duties for staffers:

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You mentioned a manpower issue before. Is that also an issue when it comes to responding and filtering all the Facebook and Twitter responses and comments?

Roberts: Absolutely. I know that other news organizations have committed more people proportionally to this task than we have. Huffington Post comes to mind. I could easily foresee a time when we have more than a handful of people devoted to that at the New York Times. But we put such a premium on the creation of unique content, so we have to be very careful in how we manage those resources.

It can be a real — I don’t want to say ‘burden’ because it’s very much worth the effort — but it’s demanding. There’s no question it’s demanding.

*****

What do you think about the New York Times’ social media strategy? Should it have eliminated the social media editor job? 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.


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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.