How far should well-established journalism brands adapt their editorial policies to accommodate digital technologies such as social media? In a talk to the LSE Polis Summer School former Economist social media editor Adam Smith explained how there are hard choices to made – it’s not just about ‘going online’. Student Miguel Flores Hormigo reports.

By the time he joined The Economist as a social media editor, Adam Smith had written for BBC Online, New Humanist, The Register, and World Trademark Review, among others. He had also covered the politics of science and research as a reporter for Research Fortnight. This included posing difficult questions to his editors, such as “What science should get done?”. During his time working for Research Fortnight, he also studied the way governments use, fund, and regulate science. He advocated a bigger presence of the publication on social media, so as to “open it up a bit more” and possibly captivate new readers, but the editors were reluctant to shift too far from their core work.

When he joined The Economist in 2015, Smith found himself working for one of the eldest outlets in the market, where a transition towards being represented on social media was, like elsewhere, needed to connect with existing readers and to find new customers. At that time, the newly-created social media team was still part of the marketing department. So the aim was to promote the product online rather than change its journalism. So, during his first year, the task for Smith to accomplish was that of converting sharp, complex, detailed analyses that had been written for print into Facebook posts, tweets, and even videos…a real novelty for a magazine known for its writing, not film-making.

The Economist on Instagram

Another challenge that the team confronted at the time of Smith’s initiative to make such transition was that of fitting the publication’s content into the platforms aligning with their audience and format. “Platforms are really constraining for journalism”, Smith remarked, “Facebook does not really have a view on different kinds of content, and the basis for giving visibility to a post is its popularity”. An article that takes weeks to investigate and report can receive the same attention and treatment as one that demand ten minutes of work.

It was the concerns posed to the integrity of their work when sharing social platforms with ‘fake’ or clickbait news that motivated The Economist to join – together with other publishers, such as The Washington Post, the German Press Agency (DPA), and La RepubblicaThe Trust Project. The consortium integrates some 126 news sites to develop transparency standards in order to allow readers to assess the quality and credibility of journalism more easily. The project focuses on two major problems, which are as well connected: first, how restraining social media is for journalistic publications; second, how users don’t know which sources of information to trust. By asking consumers what is needed for them to trust journalism more that researchers at The Trust Project have created Trust Indicators. Based on interviews, it has been found that openness and transparency on aspects like the publication’s structure, its funding, ownership, editorial mission, agenda, as well as the story’s author (as well as her expertise), are the key to the trust of readers. Now the Economist’s website includes a section where an extensive array of details on the publication’s nature, structure, and editorial practices.

But if the commitment with The Trust Project is so strong, then why do articles from The Economist still not comply with the criteria and display their authors’ names? Why do they maintain their traditional aversion to the author byline and keep magazine articles anonymous? Smith gave two main explanations: one, for the publisher’s message to get across as that of one single voice that promotes one clearly-avowed editorial agenda (pro-free market/liberal). With this goal in mind, presenting the editorial staff as one can help papers reach certain level of consistency of the argument. Two, because words are more important than the writer. In a period where celebrity journalism and sensationalism are prominent and intimidating, many people read articles depending on who wrote them, and keeping the authors’ name secret certainly helps combat this phenomenon.

So while the Economist is happy to take its work onto new platforms such as Instagram and has adapted new ways signaling its credibility online, at its core it has remained – so far – faithful to its traditional editorial values and style.

This article by Polis Summer School student Student Miguel Flores Hormigo based on a talk by @AdamZmith