Social media and the ability of South African newsrooms to be ‘plugged in’ will determine whether they are left behind or ahead of the media pack.

This is according to digital media specialist and University of Northumbria Associate Professor, Dr Wasim Ahmed (27), who is in the country for a series of talks and workshops at the Durban University of Technology (DUT).

Citing social networking site, Twitter, as the platform for breaking news stories, Dr Ahmed says media houses can ill afford to limit themselves to just traditional media avenues such as radio, television and print forms.

“Social media is where news breaks first, with research suggesting that emerging news events are likely to be reported first on a micro-blogging application such as Twitter, even before mainstream media.

“A case in point is what transpired during the recent Zimbabwe elections; the post-election violence was mentioned first on Twitter, much before the mainstream media caught wind of it,” Dr Ahmed says.

Journalists, too, have to adapt and move with the prevailing technological times.

“Sadly, reporters can no longer confine themselves to just being a radio reporter for example or a television journalist. They have to multi-skill; and need to make themselves more marketable. The media landscape has changed significantly from ten years ago. They need to be ‘plugged in’ as it were. If news emerges on social media and if journalists are using these platforms then news can be detected and observed before it actually breaks elsewhere. Actual reporting can be done from anywhere at any time nowadays through the simple use of their hand-held mobile,” Dr Ahmed adds.

When pressed on why he thought Twitter more than any other social media platform needed to be taken up by journalists, Dr Ahmed again affirmed the site’s ‘breaking news’ potential.

“Twitter is the ‘go to’ platform for breaking news because it has a completely open nature and many emerging news stories will have their own hashtags. Hashtags can be used to follow public views and opinions on a variety of news stories. It allows journalists and newsrooms to add a social media component to news. This is important in today’s climate as social media use is increasing in South Africa and around the world. Not surprising also is that one of Twitter’s biggest user groups consists of journalists,” says Dr Ahmed.

Newsrooms, however, value institutional memory by keeping on older staffers who are sometimes less than keen to adapt to newer technologies.

“One solution could be to provide training to those who are not familiar with using Twitter and to highlight the benefits of using the tools for news. The key for newsroom management is not to let technology overwhelm their staff; they should not feel intimidated or threatened by how their jobs are likely to change. Emotional intelligence and a structured training approach should be pursued,” according to Dr Ahmed.

Social media, notably Twitter, will be an important tool when South Africa goes into the 2019 national and provincial elections.

Twitter, for Dr Ahmed can be used extensively by news organisations to “monitor” online discussions as well as identify key users who are driving political discourse. Smartphone penetration will aid this process even more than previous elections.