Social Media: Destination Unknown

Way back in early 1990, I spent several weeks preparing a
long Sunday piece on the death penalty in California. It was my best work in my
then still nascent print journalism career, a story that would make people
think. This was ultimate power, at least to a writer.

But when a copy desk editor wrote a misleading headline (in
my opinion) and moved around some of the key paragraphs, I blew. I called the
editor names I didn’t even know I knew, and threatened to quit if the article
ran with his changes. I didn’t mind editing, in fact I welcomed it – however this
was editing that changed the meaning, and that was something I couldn’t
tolerate.

The story ran as I had wanted (not entirely but close
enough); I apologized to the editor and kept my job. I was ready to lose my job,
however, over what I felt were my principles, albeit my youth and inexperience
certainly led to my acting like a complete asshole.

But the incident taught me something else, something far
more important, something I didn’t realize until much later.

Why did I care so much about that story? I never cared about
a headline before or about copy changes. But this time the topic was capital
punishment, which I had covered in Missouri and remained passionate about since
moving back to California.

A few months later, I did leave my newspaper job. I gave up
my apartment, packed my belongings into a couple suitcases, and threw them in
the back of my car along with my Macintosh computer as I headed out for a three-month
journey across the United States to talk to people about the death penalty and
write a book.

I didn’t actually have a book deal, didn’t have a job to go
back to when I was finished. I didn’t even have half of the interviews lined up
that I needed, figuring I would fill in the spaces along the way either by
intention or circumstance. But to this day I have never been happier.

Input vs. Output

This experience – and the book that followed, which was
published in 1994, three years after my cross-country reporting from prisons,
courthouses, family homes and roadside diners – was all due to that earlier
story for which I was ready to quit. The story wasn’t my life’s goal at the
time, and neither was writing a book.

What I needed was the journey. Not the final words on the
printed page, but the experience of writing them and meeting the people who would
help and inspire me along the way.

It didn’t make sense that I could leave my job and gain
access to Death Row inmates and political leaders without a valid press
credential, but I did. It didn’t figure that people would talk to a young
reporter with no affiliation and little chance of their stories ever seeing
daylight, but they did. In fact, looking back, it all seemed so easy, from the
decision to quit my job, to getting my job back, to getting a publishing deal
and being on a radio talk show tour.

But it wasn’t easy, not even close. It’s just that when you
finally decide to do what you need to do, what you are supposed to do, things
have a funny way of falling into place. It’s like turning the final number on a
combination lock – everything just clicks.

All of this, believe it or not, brings me back to social
media.

Linda Zimmer, a close friend and former colleague, put it
best when she told me that social media breaks down into a series of inputs and
outputs. The problem for many is that they tend to focus primarily on the
outputs – the blog post, the Wikipedia entry, the Facebook widget.

But input is the key. Social media’s power – and the power
of all “socialized” media – is in the connections we make and knowledge we
gain. It’s in how the outputs are created and the meanings behind the metrics.

Social media thrives on input, not on whether the resulting
content and conversation is part of a blog or a Twitter channel. As Linda said,
you learn far less from a Wikipedia entry than from the Talk pages and comments
about that entry. Input equals insight.

No one knows where they will end up when they start their
social media journey, but those who focus on the journey will never be
disappointed with where they end up.

Focus on the journey, and the destination will take care of
itself.

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3 Responses to Social Media: Destination Unknown

  1. Philip says:

    Like you, I learned early on in my journalism career to jealously protect my copy. Not all of the editors liked my policy, but I insisted to all of them that any substantive changes in my copy had to cleared with me. That earned me a reputation as a “prima donna” among some editors, but it saved my newspaper from having to publish embarrassing corrections and protected my reputation as a fair and absolutely accurate reporter. That, in turn, opened the door to dozens of high-ranking officials who knew they could trust what I wrote. That created a wonderful journey for my career, all because I was so protective of my stories.

  2. T Shirts says:

    Social media power wants us to invest lots of inputs.Social networking sites like twitter, facebook, wordpress etc they are working hard.

  3. Because I too was a reporter who left a paper (WSJ) to go on a journey when I thought it as just about researching for a book, I began reading your post.
    I was pulled in further because you were writing about the death penalty (I read Richard Paterson North’s novel on the topic and participated in a campaign to overturn it) ….
    But your conclusion was a capper; here’s to thoughtful input – and input about other’s input so there is a strengthening of the common thread of an online conversation and we all learn from each other to truly enjoy the journey together… true Peer2Peer. Thank you!

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