How Journalists are Using Social Media for Real ResultsBuz
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Journalists are, by nature, crafty folk who are wonderfully adept at stalking — I mean, finding sources and relevant information for various and sundry stories. Well, the advent of social media has made the process of reporting all the more nuanced, and has served as a vital channel for everything from finding leads to contacting sources to sharing and furthering one’s brand.
Still, as the Internet continues to expand, it can be difficult to pick and choose which tools are right for you as a journalist — it can be daunting to litter one’s desktop with Twitter applications, social networks, location-based tools and blogs. At times, it’s tempting to throw one’s laptop into the sea and return to the days of notepads and typewriters.
Still, if one can manage to circumvent the information overload and pick and choose which tools are most effective for which purposes, social media can be an extremely effective.
Mashable spoke with an array of journalists and industry folks to see how they’re using social media in their day-to-day work. Here’s what we dug up.
Finding Leads, Noticing Trends
The Internet is, in essence, a huge hive of simultaneous conversation that reflects the populace’s pressing concerns — from health care reform to this week’s episode of Glee. Therefore, it can be quite difficult to cut through the static and put one’s finger on the pulse of the story. That’s where social media comes in: Tools such as Facebook and Twitter serve as excellent filters for the masses of information circulating on the web.
Aaron Lazenby, DJ for Pirate Cat Radio, was scanning Twitter one night last year when he noticed #iranelectiontrending. Curious, he clicked on the hashtag, and started poring over the flood of tweets about the “stolen” election.
Lazenby became fascinated with the situation, and stayed up all night talking with people in Iran and reading up on the subject. The next day, he was hanging out with a Pulitzer Prize-winning AP reporter who was completely unaware of what was going on in Iran — news of the protests had not reached the mainstream news. Lazenby seized the opportunity to tell the story.
He contacted one of his Twitter sources, who agreed to do an interview over Skype for Lazenby’s radio show. The interview, in turn, was picked up by CNN’s iReport, a citizen journalism portal.
“Our interactions on Twitter built enough trust between us where he was comfortable talking to me and I was comfortable using him as a source,” Lazenby says. “Reading through tweet histories really can give you a good idea if the person is for real or not. I think that was critical for us getting the interview done,” he says.
Brian Dresher, manager of social media and digital partnerships at USA TODAY, agrees that Twitter is an excellent source for journalists looking for leads. In fact, throughout 2009, he conducted bi-weekly training sessions with the paper’s journalists in order to teach them how best to use the microblogging site. “I think the most vital [aspect of the] tool is the engagement with the audience,” he says. “To not participate in conversations that are taking place or to avoid monitoring trends is going to result in lost opportunities. [By keeping up with Twitter], journalists are able to take a trend they first spot on Twitter and the real-time Internet and continue to develop it in more detail.”
Dresher remembers one such journalist, Kitty Bean Yancey, who was able to write a comprehensive story about hotel price gouging by turning to Twitter. After a huge snow storm last year, Yancey entered the terms “snow” and “hotel” into search and came up with scores of tweets in which people were complaining about hotels doubling their prices for snowbound guests who had to stay another night.
Although many journalists swear by Twitter as a method of spotting and filtering out trends, Facebook can also function as a reporting tool. Elliot Volkman, grad student and Play This Magazine founder, has been using Facebook as a source since his undergrad days at Georgia Southern University.
After a friend told Volkman about the sorry state of a local apartment complex in which several students resided — her roommate fell through the floor of the living room — she sent him several pictures via Facebook depicting the run-down condition of the building.
Volkman also used Facebook to find more residents of the building, along with various groups dedicated to the apartment complex. Word spread that he was writing a story for the campus newspaper, and more residents — and two employees — sent him photos and information via Facebook.
Volkman won a journalism award from the Georgia College Press Association for his efforts, and prompted the building to shell out more than $20,000 in repair fees. “I did a lot of my information gathering via social networking sites. I would not have been able to do so without them,” he says.
There are more ways than ever to get in touch with sources — from Facebook to Twitter to MySpace to e-mail to good old-fashioned phone calls. Still, it can be difficult to find the right sources for your particular story when there are so many people out there and so many channels to go through.
Facebook, obviously, is an excellent resource for finding sources. With more than 400 million people searchable by name, occupation, network, etc, Facebook is like modern-day phonebook — just with more photos and biographical details.
Tracy Swartz, a writer for Chicago’s RedEye paper who reports on the transit system, uses Facebook to communicate with bus drivers. These city employees friended her on Facebook so that they could send her information about city transportation– which has been in flux as of late — without leaving an e-mail trail.
Lauren McCullough, social networks and news engagement manager for The Associated Press, can also attest to the importance of Facebook when looking for sources.
“Virginia Tech was sort of a pivotal moment for the AP and social networks, because that news event tied so closely to Facebook because it was on a college campus,” she says, referring to the shooting that occurred there in 2007.
“At that point, Facebook was still very heavily used by students. There were a lot of instances where we were looking on Facebook to find information, to identify possible people who had been affected by what had happened. So this was a moment where the company realized, ‘Wow, these networks have some purpose.’ Since 2007, it has been an important part of our newsgathering process.”
Hand-in-hand with sourcing comes crowdsourcing. In addition to talking with specific sources via Facebook, Swartz also reaches out to a wider web of people via Twitter — i.e., her readers. “Everybody knows about their own commute best, so they’ll be the ones who will tell me if the sign is wrong on the number 151 bus or the Orange Line should be arriving at this time, but it’s not,” she says.
She’s also one of the few journalists that we spoke to who has figured out how to use Foursquare to her advantage; she scours the tips linked to checkins at certain stations to find out about fare jumpers and building conditions.
McCullough also testifies to the importance of crowdsourcing in the newsgathering process. “There are a lot of famous AP photos of news events that were not taken by AP photographers, but were taken by just average people,” she says.
“When the [US Airways flight 1549] crashed into the Hudson River, I very quickly was on Twitter and Facebook and Flickr and YouTube and very quickly stumbled on Janis Krum’s iconic photo and began a process to get in touch with him and to find out where he was and where he had taken the photo and whether it was something that we could distribute.” Now, thanks to Twitter and McCullough’s efforts, that photo has become an exemplary piece of citizen journalism.
Crowdsourcing doesn’t always have to be about breaking news or investigative intrigue, however, it can also serve as a creative way to tell a story. Susanna Speier, a columnist for The Huffington Post, employs an interesting brand of crowdsourcing in order to pen Politiku, a column that deals with current and political events and includes a collection of crowdsourced haikus.
After coming up with a topic for her column — either via gauging the cultural zeitgeist or seeing what friends are chatting about on Facebook and Twitter — Speier reaches out to people via calls for submission on her blog, Twitter or Facebook, or by using resources like HARO. HARO, or Help a Reporter Out, is a website that helps sources and reporters connect. It started out as a Facebook group, but soon grew too big for the social networking site — according to founder Peter Shankman, more than 50,000 journalists use the site.
Speier also delves into her friends’ networks to find potential poets. For example, she found one poet to contribute to a column she wrote about Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s retirement and his replacement, Sonia Sotomayor. “[ I approached] a conservative attorney who I had never met and was not in my [Facebook] network,” she explains. “I saw that he had organized a New York-based attorney networking group on Facebook and figured he would therefore be an interesting candidate,” she says. This was contributor Ron Coleman’s addition to the story: “Do judges feel things?/Marshall, Holmes, Hand, Brandeis, Hand…/Do feelings judge things?”
Giving the Voiceless a Voice
Crowdsourcing can also be extremely important in situations in which you’re dealing with subjects who lack the power to speak out for themselves.
By now, most of us have heard of James Karl Buck, a graduate student from the University of California-Berkeley, who was arrested along with his translator, Mohammed Maree in Mahalla, Egypt, while covering an anti-government protest in 2008.
Buck was able to call attention to his plight by simply tweeting the word “arrested,” which alerted his followers to his situation and prompted Hossam el-Hamalawy, a blogger from UC-Berkeley, to cover Buck’s Twitter updates on his own blog. Buck’s tweet led his university to hire a lawyer for the boy, helping extricate him from prison.
“I’m not naturally a social media or technology junkie,” Buck says. “I don’t always know what’s newest or jump on the newest thing. I went to Egypt to report on the press there and I found out that the major newspapers and journalists were really restricted in what they could publish, so a lot of what was the more daring journalism was really coming from the blogs.”
While in Egypt, Buck used Twitter to find out where protests were going down. “That was how people were telling people what was going on,” he says. “Kind of like in an old newsroom, an AP wire coming in over the printer, telling you what was happening.”
And, in the same way that el-Hamalawy was able to alert readers to Buck’s situation by sharing his tweets via his blog, Egyptian citizens were also able to make their troubles known via the microblogging site and the journalists who followed their tweets.
“Twitter gives voice to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to be heard,” Buck says. (This is assuming, of course, the government in question does not block the usage of such sites.) “More people around the world have access to a cellphone than they do to a computer, much less than to a politician with a sympathetic ear or a legitimate vote or to a reporter that will report their stories. Rather than sending a reporter who may not be trained in a given language or issue to ask people what they’re thinking, people can directly tell you what they’re thinking.”
Along the same lines, YouTube became an amazing resource during the protests following the Iranian elections back in June. Olivia Ma, news manager at the video-sharing site, recalls seeing thousands of videos being uploaded to the site depicting upheaval in the streets, clashes between dissenters and police, as well as gruesome killings.
“Not only did we see hundreds of these videos being uploaded to the site, we also saw many copies being made,” she adds. “So there was almost this ecosystem of videos that were being shared among social networks. And what we found is that people were adding things into the descriptions of their videos saying things like, ‘Share this with your friends — you are the media.’ People wanted these copies of these videos to be spread as far as possible because they wanted the word to get out about what was happening inside of the country.”
“Because journalists have been banned from operating inside Iran, these videos are providing the only window into what’s really happening there,” Ma says. And after more and more media channels out of Iran came to be blocked in the wake of the protests, Ma says people in the embattled country started sending videos to friends and family abroad, who uploaded the footage to the sites themselves.
One of YouTube’s most recent initiatives, YouTube Direct, speaks to this burgeoning realm of citizen reporting. YouTube Direct, according to the blog, is “a new tool that allows media organizations to request, review and rebroadcast YouTube clips directly from YouTube users.” Several news outlets such as NPR, The Washington Post and ABC News have started using this tool, which launched in version one back in November.
Although some journalists may be reticent to give over a measure of power to their sources, such down-and-dirty footage and information can be invaluable in telling a multifaceted, accurate story.
Yes, social media is an excellent tool for getting a story, but it can also be a wonderful way to share and expand upon your work. After all, we have the luxury in this Internet-driven world to edit our thoughts almost instantly, so it behooves us to take advantage of the great fact-checker that is our public.
Brian Stelter, a reporter for The New York Times, uses both Twitter and his blog to get the word out about his articles. “The best way for me to do it is to write a rough draft of a story, put it on one of our blogs, tweet about that rough draft, ask people for feedback, ask them for questions and comments, and then improve my story based on what they say before it gets into print,” he says.
Stelter stresses that his stories do not change drastically after such efforts — but he can improve them subtlety. One should still strive to get the facts as straight as possible before presenting them to one’s readers.
For example, last month Stelter broke the news that Hulu was losing The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. He posted a rough draft of his story online, and was able to gather reader opinions and add a paragraph to the final story detailing what people thought. “It would be hard to survey random readers about that information in the hour that I had to improve the story. But thanks to Twitter and Facebook and other websites, I was able to tap into reader opinions and I was able to subtlety improve the story,” he says.
As for sharing stories, if you’re a reader of Mashable, you probably already know that we share our stories widely via Facebook, Twitter and Google Buzz. Individual writers will also share stories on their blogs and to their Twitter followers, meaning that our stories reach a much more diverse and far-reaching audience than just the readers of our blog. While we take such sharing for granted — being a website focused on social and digital media — we understand that other publications are just learning to use such channels of communication.
“This stuff is second nature to the Mashables and the Gawkers of the world,” Stelter says. “It’s a little less natural for The New York Times, but it’s getting more natural and reporters are getting more comfortable doing it.”
When you share your stories online, you have the ability to reach far more people than, say, your magazine’s 50,000 subscribers. You can also get a discussion going by asking questions on Facebook or Twitter. In this way, you can gauge how your readers are reacting to your stories and get a sense of what they like — and don’t like — about your coverage.
Branding. It’s a word that sends shivers down the spine of many a serious journalist. Well, let us recast how we see the word for a spell and think of it rather as connecting to your community and establishing yourself as an expert in your field. Social media, naturally, is a wonderful resource for making connections with your readers and really cementing your brand.
The RedEye has been extremely successful with reaching out to readers and creating a community. According to Steph Yiu, the web editor for RedEye, the publication utilizes everything from Facebook to Google Wave to make connections. They also have tweet-ups with readers and a special social media posse called RedEye Royalty, made up of particularly active readers. There readers get access to their own blog, special Twitter badges and a whole community of engaged readers. Their thoughts are also often printed in the paper itself.
“Our reader community talks to us as if we were their friends — more so than with other newspapers, because we don’t have that barrier to entry,” Yiu says. “We really try to interact with our audience and build a connection and relationship with them.”
Similarly, Francesca Stabile, the social media coordinator for the Village Voice, uses Twitter to connect with her readers. Among other things, Stabile runs the @VoiceStreet account, which serves as a connection between the publication and its Street Team. She mostly uses the account to promote shows, openings and other happenings in the city.
Still, instead of just alerting people to these events, Stabile really tries to engage with her followers. “I am really trying to target a much younger group of people and have them consider us a source for these things, especially if they aren’t picking up a physical copy of the Voice,” she says. “I would like to think that people follow [my feed] for more of a conversation — if they like something I tweet about, they can start a dialogue with me, and I’m more than happy to engage in that dialogue.”
Stabile went about building up her following in a rather interesting manner. “My method was to find the cultural tastemakers on Twitter, and just try to make them involve me in their conversations,” she says.
“A lot of those people were bloggers and show-goers, and it took a little while, but eventually people began to realize I knew what I was talking about when I suggested shows, and that I was linking to cool things like free food and cheap events and funny articles. I got a lot of people who were surprised that the Voice was following them, and I got a lot of people that were confused why I was so personal and opinionated on things, but I think people have grown to like that about me.”
Now that you’ve heard how these various journalists utilize social media, you’re probably feeling a little overwhelmed. Well, take a deep breath. According to Sree Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs at Columbia Journalism School, “Things should fit into your work flow and your life flow.”
Even Sreenivasan, who calls himself a technology evangelist/skeptic, doesn’t use every social media tool on the block. “I am an early tester, late adopter of technology, and I believe everyone in journalism should think about being that. Test it, understand it, know what it can do, and then use it when you are ready,” he says.
Rich Gordon, director of digital innovation at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, for his part stresses the importance of sticking to the tried and true tenants of journalism.
One could hypothetically report a story from the comfort of one’s living room, but diverse stories still require boot leather. “If everyone types a term into Google, everyone’s going to get the same top 10 results,” he says. Therefore, he would advise journos to use social media as a tool — but not a wholesale toolbox.
So, fellow muckrackers and pavement-pounders, we advise you to take these pearls and anecdotes and do with them what you will, and if you have your own tales of journalistic artistry, let us know in the comments. (We’re totally going to crowdsource the hell out of you.)