For many journalists they have become an important part of the job, while for others they remain a waste of time and should be banned. Either way social networking sites, most obviously Facebook and Myspace, now play a big role in reporting.
A journalist at a large regional newspaper told me about a year ago that Facebook was an "essential" part of the job: "We track down everyone we want to speak to using it," she said. "And we find stories to do with the town from it almost everyday".
Now Facebook has lost most of its allure among the early-adopter crowd, what social networking sites are journalists using these days? Alison Gow, assistant editor at the Livepool Daily Post, gives a useful guide. Among the ones she uses are:
- Twitter, the popular network based on 140-character messages. A lot of journalists use this to network with others in the industry and discuss story ideas. This is her favourite, and "the most useful".
- Ask500people to get a lot of opinions, fast. The Post uses this "regularly".
- Bambuser to broadcast live from events using a Nokia N95 phone. While you're streaming your pictures live you can talk to other users - and when you go live a message is pinged to Twitter to let everyone know.
- Coveritlive, the free lvieblogging software which the Post has used to give live accounts of a Paul McCartney gig and the arrival of a 50-foot spider in the city. The social aspect comes from recruiting readers as moderators and posters, adding photos, video and sounds links to the stream.
- Delicious, the social bookmarking site that lets you share interesting links with friends and create your own virtual cuttings library of online articles.
Gow doesn't use these things for their novelty value - she says they make her job easier and her journalism more interesting. They all show that journalists are increasingly involving colleagues across the industry and readers at large in their work.
Perhaps this is what US blogger Jeff Jarvis would call an example of the "press-sphere", where newspapers and their websites, previously the authority on news and information, are just one voice among the crowd of witnesses, search engines, official sources and others.
Despite the monetary and circulation declines of the press, it seems news professionals have an increased role, not a diminished one, in channeling all this information.