When actor Ashton Kutcher bested CNN by reaching 1 million Twitter followers first, it was the cyber smackdown heard ’round the net.

More recently, after traditional journalists were banned from reporting about the raging protests in Iran, Americans learned about the conflict from Facebook and in 140-character-or-fewer Twitter posts, not the 6 o’clock news.

These digital feats prove just how much technology and Web 2.0 tools have wormed their way into the daily news cycle, essentially eating away at the velvet rope that once separated social media and traditional media. Though some old-guard journalists still give social media the stink eye, the time has come to stop treating it like a blip on the computer screen and embrace it, says Natali Del Conte, a technology news journalist with CBS, CNET, CNBC, MSNBC, and ABC, among other networks.

Del Conte will discuss “Social Media and Technology’s Influence on the Media” during the Princeton Macintosh Users’ Group (PMUG) meeting at on Tuesday, September 8, at 7:30 p.m. at Jadwin Hall on the Princeton University campus. Free. Visit http://pmug-nj.org, or call 609-924-7140.

“I work for old media, but I come from new media, so I have a foot in both worlds,” says Del Conte, who will talk about how social networks pertain to disseminating news, and how journalists can use digital technology to their benefit. “We have an opportunity to evolve or perish.”

Journalism has always interested Del Conte. “The way I shaped my world was through public discourse,” she says. “I never doubted I would have a degree in communications.”

Del Conte, 30, earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University-Haywood and a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Southern California. She began as a newspaper reporter at the Oakland Tribune in 1999, but even then, she learned she was ahead of the digital curve after asking an editor if the paper planned to utilize the Internet to retain readership.

“No,” the editor told her. “(Readers) will come back. They always do.”

Del Conte, who is originally from the San Francisco Bay area, where her mother works in real estate and her father owns Del Conte’s Landscaping, then started writing about technology in Silicon Valley. She has written for several publications, including WIRED, the San Francisco Examiner, Variety Magazine, PC Magazine, ELLEgirl and Hispanic Magazine.

Her journalism career, however, shifted after she was a guest on “Cranky Geeks,” an online tech show. “I thought, ‘It’s a silly little web show. No one’s watching,’” she says. “It ended up being that show that I was discovered on.”

Del Conte says the response to her segments was huge because she was not the stereotypical tech geek. Adam Curry, a former MTV vee-jay, later helped her create her own show, “TeXtra,” which led to an opportunity with CNET, where she now has a daily newscast called “Loaded” and co-hosts the daily podcast “Buzz Out Loud.”

“I love being someone’s home portal to their technology news. There is always an opportunity to challenge myself,” says Del Conte, who’s also a correspondent for the CBS Early Show and a regular contributor for the Today Show, as well as networks like Fox Business News, G4TV and Univision.

Defining social media. The purpose of social media is to foster social interaction and create online communities. News outlets often use Web 2.0 tools, including blogs, forums, podcasts, online videos, slideshows and user-generated content, as well as social-networking Web sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace to disseminate information and interact with consumers.

“The utility of it is definitely there,” says Del Conte, who writes a blog and has MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.

Del Conte compared the influence of social media on traditional media to the Enlightenment period when people were first learning how to read, even though the church opposed it.

“It is a very gradual move,” she says. “There is not really a time when (social media) became important and when it wasn’t important. For some people, it always was important.”

Michael Jackson’s death is one recent event that highlighted the convergence of social and traditional media. Gossip website TMZ scooped the story, leaving top-rated news stations at the bottom of the information pile. The pop star’s memorial service was streamed live onto numerous newspaper websites, which also created interactive timelines, quizzes, and photo slide shows. And several commentators put a new spin on how real-time events are covered by reading Facebook status updates, rather than interviewing fans and compiling soundbites.

Is the merger of social media and traditional media good, bad, or both? Del Conte says, as of now, it’s a little bit of both, particularly when news outlets use social media as a gimmick, rather than as a way to interact with viewers.

“There’s more good than bad. There are always growing pains,” she says. “One of my big pet peeves is watching a national (television) broadcast and they throw up their Facebook wall. I could care less. I don’t think that’s a meaningful way to use social media, gauge real, public opinion, or really engage a viewer. It’s hard to make something that is truly interactive that is interesting, fast, and edgy, not stiff and boring.”

Live online, or die hard. While Del Conte was interested in the growing need for newspaper websites a decade ago, even she was slower to incorporate social media tools into traditional journalism.

“I was very hesitant to embrace it, and I think most people are. When you put your face out there, and you have something interesting to say, people will look for you and find you and network with you,” says Del Conte, who had dozens of MySpace requests after her “Cranky Geeks” segments.

But she has watched the digital age transform media in how information is disseminated and how consumers obtain news. The bottom line, she says, is traditional media must utilize technology and social media to survive in our technology-centered society.

“We are at such a pivotal point in media now because of social media,” she says. “Consumers have so much power with how they get their news now. No one is forced to get their news from the evening nightly news.”

“We can choose to get involved,” she continued, “or we can be afraid and (stick) to our guns. You can be known as the person who was stuck in the mud, or be known as the journalist who was willing to be fluid.”

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