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It's Our Turn: The power of social media

Al's decked out coffee cup as seen on Facebook. (Echo Press photo)

I found out on Facebook that I lost my coffee cup before I even knew it was missing.

Behold the power of social media.

Here's what happened:

I have a habit of carrying my coffee mug with me at work and I often inadvertently abandon it on other people's desks, in the production area, in the back room, etc.

Last week, as I do a few times a day, I checked out the Echo Press' Facebook page and I would have spit out my coffee - if I would've had my cup. Some clever person in our production department had posted a photo of my "orphaned" coffee cup. Someone had even creatively festooned it with a St. Patrick's theme, complete with a shamrock, Irish top hat and a pot of gold (alas, the decorations weren't real; they were just paper cutouts).

It was the kind of goofy, funny thing that people like to come across on Facebook. It quickly drew seven "likes" and even a comment: "very creative!"

The thing is, Facebook is how a lot of people find out about things these days. On a larger and somber scale, they'll tumble across one of their friends Facebooking or Tweeting about a fire, a crash or other breaking news that they heard from someone or even came across themselves.

That used to really bother me because it's "scooping" us here at the paper. But you can't blame people for wanting to tell others about something unusual or newsy. It's human nature. And it's not much different than years ago when people used phones to spread the word or when they gathered at their favorite watering hole.

The big thing to remember about social media is that the information isn't necessarily coming from an official or knowledgeable source. Someone, for instance, could post seeing a big fire and it could turn out to be just a practice burn. Or someone could say they heard there was a crash and someone must have been killed because there were ambulances everywhere when it could turn out to be just minor injuries. Or someone could speculate, wrongly, that so-and-so must have been in the crash. Or that it must have happened because of this (insert theory here).

Of course, with Facebook, if someone gets a fact or two wrong, they can just say, "oops" and move on. To them, it's not that big of a deal.

But getting those details right is extremely important for the newspaper. As editor, I've had a philosophy toward breaking news since day one: "I'd rather be right than first." That means reporting only what we know to be true. We get information directly from official sources - law enforcement agencies, fire departments or those authorized to release the information. Sometimes, it takes a little time to get that official information but being right is worth it.

So while social media is fun (to the point of being addictive), lightening fast and a neat way to talk to your circle of friends all at once, it does have some limitations if you rely on it for "news."

Thankfully, that's not happening. People still turn to the local newspaper for information they know will be accurate. During the terrible turn of events on February 20 when three separate accidents claimed six lives, the Echo Press website recorded nearly 200,000 page views. We worked closely with law enforcement agencies to make sure the information we reported was accurate and held off on naming victims until family members were notified. At least that's a little better for the families involved instead of finding out though speculation and guessing on Facebook.

Don't take this wrong. I'm not a basher of social media. In fact, I think it's entertaining and incredibly useful. Here at the newspaper, we've found social media to be a great tool. We've used it to contact sources, get story ideas, take polls, alert people to stories we've posted on our website and more. It's a great way to gauge what people are doing - the latest hobby craze, what they're laughing about, what they're angry over, what they don't understand and what they want to know more about. Having an instant connection into all that information is an editor's dream.

So put me down as a Facebook fan. It's a fun way to check out what people are up to while sipping on a good cup of coffee. Now, if I could just find my cup...

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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