Social media directors are the new editors at large

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When asked recently whether or not he had Internet TV in mind during Gawker's redesign, Nick Denton told Fashionweekdaily, "put it this way: The distinctions between a cable TV network and us will disappear over the next five years."

I was thinking this week about social media directors and how, in many ways, they are similar to editors at large, except somewhat turbocharged for an era of ubiquitous social media. The roles of both are becoming less and less dissimilar, even as more and more video content is streamed online and across mobile platforms.

What precisely is an editor at large? "Editor at Large" is an honorific like that of "Producer" in Hollywood -- often held but largely undefined. In short, an editor at large is a brand ambassador, and many publications -- particularly startups nowadays -- are using them to get the right kind of attention. An editor at large may also write, but the bulk of their duties involves leveraging television time in order to strengthen a publication's brand. The best editors at large are the oxygen that cable bookers cannot live without. Both social media directors and editors at large are great connectors.

I was fixed on the distinctions between editors at large and social media experts after Frank Rich's surprise move from the New York Times to become an editor at large. Rich's move this week is a perfect example of how a provocative voice like his is being counted upon to build a more vibrant online community. It was announced that Rich, no stranger to the television screen, will become an online commentator, strengthening NYMag.com's community. There was no mention, curiously, of television appearances -- a traditional part of the job of an editor at large -- in the announcement.

Rachel Sklar, whose term as Mediaite's Editor at Large is just about over (she's moving to Hashable for SXSW), was an effective brand ambassador. Sklar, who is a frequent television talking head -- she's almost a regular on CNN's Reliable Sources -- and mainstay on the tech social scene, gave Mediaite some lift right out of the gate. Mediaite, which launched in July 2009, is now an established part of the New York media firmament, in no small part due to having an intrepid editor at large promoting their brand. Talking head Julia Allison -- no stranger to the tech social circuit or television -- helped Star magazine's trashy gossip get a fair hearing in arenas that they would normally be closed to such a publication. Lloyd Grove, the Daily Beast's Editor at Large, is also something of a public face of the company, getting into the gladiatorial fundament whenever a reputable booker asks.

Social media directors are editors at large for the 21st century. Social media directors interact directly with individuals, though via Facebook and Twitter. Editors at large tend not to take social media into account, indirectly speaking to an audience from a panel on, say, a cable talk show. That was then, this is now. I suspect Frank Rich's new role on NYMag.com, engaging the community, will mean that the role of editor at large is taking a quantum leap closer to that of a social media director.

NPR's Andy Carvin has won near universal praise in his content curation of the revolution in the Arab world via Twitter. Andy, with over 30,000 Twitter followers, is the self-described "social media guy" at NPR. NPR, we cannot fail to note, solidly competes across multiple platforms -- radio, podcasts, blogs, social media -- against even "commodity" television news organizations.

It used to be that not too long ago for magazines and newspapers, television was the all. Getting on TV built buzz around a story. Tina Brown, in particular, was very good at getting her writers on television to promote their stories. That's not so much the way things are nowadays, although a little television exposure never hurt a magazine story.

Good social media buzz is simply more important than having a representative on cable television, and to that end a clear and focused social media director communicating with your customers is a much better bet in the long run than a Tv appearance by the old school editor at large.  And as editors at large slowly morph but surely into social media directors, building community engagement will take on a more important role in the life of publishers.

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