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Social Media Tips and Tools for Journalists

Social Media Tips and Tools for Journalists

Updated September 2010

Welcome to LostRemote.com’s introductory social media guide for journalists — an overview of how to use social media in the newsroom with tips and tools spanning coverage and promotion. Feel free to distribute however you like — as long as you credit us — and please let us know any suggested changes or additions via Twitter or by emailing tips@lostremote.com.

What is social media?

Social media enables people to share information through relationships with others. These relationships can be friends and family (mostly Facebook), people you want to “follow” but may not know personally (mostly Twitter), business contacts (mostly LinkedIn), people who share similar interests (like photographers on Flickr) and your neighbors (some hyperlocal blogs).

Social media is also, well, more social. Because people can communicate with each other, exchanging information is more like a conversation and less like a broadcast.

Why should journalists use social media?

A majority of Americans now use social media (especially Facebook), and even older Americans are embracing it in huge numbers. Facebook’s reach is unprecedented — the largest site on the web with over 500 million active users worldwide. YouTube is also a monster, and Twitter continues to grow. All this reach adds up to three important reasons to embrace social media:

1. That’s where people are increasingly finding their daily news. If you’ve used Facebook, you’ve seen that friends and family share a lot of links to news stories — and many log into Facebook in the morning before they visit their favorite news sites. Twitter has become a source of breaking news. By feeding content to social networks, you can satisfy hungry news consumers, build awareness and potentially drive significant traffic to your news stories.

2. It can be a great source of stories, especially if you take the time to “follow” good sources of information and have a good handle on a few tools. More about this in a moment.

3. It allows you — both as an individual journalist and the organization you work for — to build trust and relevancy with your audience. It’s a real-time feedback loop that allows you to listen, respond and provide context and insight to your coverage. In an age in which journalists are suffering from plummeting credibility, it’s a way to put a face on your coverage — to show that you’re real and you care about how it’s received. If this doesn’t sound tangible enough, consider that it’s now considered an asset in the job market if a journalist has a substantial social media following.

But who has the time for it?

Yes, newsrooms are busier than ever with fewer resources and more deadlines. But social media has become such a force — from promotion to newsgathering — that it can’t be ignored. If you’re not doing it, your competition will. Unfortunately, it does require some old-fashioned human effort to make it successful. The trick is budgeting your time in short bursts around social efforts with the highest return.

Which social sites should I focus on?

It depends on your goals. If you’re looking for promotion and traffic, then Facebook is a must, followed by Twitter. If you’re looking for stories, then Twitter is a must, followed by Facebook. If you want to emphasize real-time reporting, it’s all about Twitter. So those two are a given.

Other social sites have more niche specialties. If you’re a business reporter, LinkedIn is invaluable, because of its large audience of business execs. For technology or anything that appeals to 20 to 30-something men, Digg is a big player. If you’re a video blogger, YouTube is a promotional powerhouse. A musician, MySpace. A photographer, Flickr. If you’re looking to create your own social network, there are services like Ning. Plus, Tumblr and StumbleUpon can drive respectable awareness and traffic, especially for viral content. And there are location-based social networks like Foursquare and Gowalla, which are seeing some early experimentation by local and hyperlocal news outfits.

For the purposes of this social media guide, we’ll drill down on Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook 101 for journalists

Let’s assume you’ve already set up an account under your name, and we’re going to assume you know the basics of things like “friend requests” (if not, go here.) Usually, journalists tend to keep these accounts mostly personal — in other words, limited to family, friends and co-workers. Then you can set up what’s called a “page” where you can publish updates to people who “like” or visit the page. (When you “like” a page on Facebook, you essentially subscribe to content published from it.)

For example, here’s the show page for Anderson Cooper 360. Separately, Cooper has his own private Facebook account. This avoids the awkwardness of having to accept a “friend request” from random viewers, and if the show were to dissolve, Cooper still keeps his private account.

Once you’ve set up a page, then it’s time to start publishing to it. This can be automated, but a straight headline service rarely gains traction on Facebook. There’s an art to the tone and style of writing for social media — a much more conversational approach that emphasizes “shareable” elements of a story. For Facebook, people tend to share things that are unique, amazing, odd, inspiring and worth talking about.

Here’s a great example of a story shared by the New York Times with a conversational message that encourages users to participate. When users “like” a story and post comments, it shares the story with their friends, increasing the viral distribution of the story. In short, it helps it get in front of more eyeballs.

One more thing about Facebook — journalists are often wary about “friending” sources from their personal accounts. To us, this is not an ethical dilemma as long as you’re friending lots of sources and you’re democratic about it. In other words, your account is not strictly personal. But there are circumstances in which you might want to be careful, for example, if you’re a political reporter who has Republican candidates as friends, but no Democrats. Or friending an anonymous source, which is probably a bad idea. Consult your newsroom policies (if they exist) for guidance here.

Twitter 101 for Journalists

For first-timers, Twitter is a little more difficult to grasp than Facebook. In a nutshell, Twitter lets you share short text messages and links (limited to 140 characters) with people who are “following” you. The idea of “following” is similar to “liking” something on Facebook — when you follow a person or brand on Twitter, you receive updates from it.

Because of Twitter’s short-form, mobile-friendly approach, it’s become a real-time ticker of people’s thoughts, observations and recommendations. And unlike Facebook, the vast majority of Twitter accounts are public to everyone. Even if you’re not following someone, you can visit their Twitter page or do a search and see what they’ve posted.

This approach has made Twitter fertile ground for real-time reporting, both from traditional journalists and observers. Breaking news, especially in metro areas, often appears in some form on Twitter before news organizations first publish it.

For example, this “tweet” (a message sent on Twitter) contained a couple links to photos of a plane that crashed into a federal building in Austin, Texas. It was sent out minutes after the crash.

But first things first. Creating an account on Twitter is easy, as long as you can find an account name that’s still available. Unlike Facebook, you can only reserve a name that hasn’t been registered before. If you use a name that includes a brand from your news organization, please be aware that you may not be able to take the account with you when you leave. (This is still a legal gray area.)

Once you have an account, you can start “following” people, like @lostremote. (Here are the basics of how Twitter works.) As a journalist, you’ll want to follow people who could be sources of stories — government agencies, politicians, public information officers, PR representatives, etc. — who are increasingly using Twitter as a way to distribute information that doesn’t merit a full press release. (If you use anonymous sources, you may decide to avoid following them to help preserve their anonymity.)

Once you follow someone, they may follow you in return (or not). The more followers you have, the more people see the updates you post. But to understand the true power of Twitter, it’s important to understand “@replies” (pronounced “at replies”), mentions and direct messages — three ways to communicate directly with people. Twitter has a great explanation here, which is a must-read. But in a nutshell, if you @reply someone, they’ll be alerted to your tweet even if they’re not following you. You can direct message someone if you’re following each other.

Once you have a follower or two to start, you can start “tweeting.” Similar to Facebook, this is a conversational style. If your Twitter account isn’t private — why would it be? — then be careful not to write something you wouldn’t want people to read. Ask yourself, would I say this on the air? Write it in the newspaper? On my blog? Again, consult your newsroom’s policies.

How do I find breaking news?

The key is to begin looking immediately. The first stop is Twitter search. Try different keywords, and then refine your search with the advanced settings. If you’re looking for photos, for example, click the “containing links” option to narrow it down a bit. You can also search by “hashtag”, which how many Twitter users categorize tweets on the fly. (More details here.) And for real-time search that includes Facebook, there’s a new site called Kurrently.com that seems to work well.

Another search trick is to use geolocation. An increasing number of tweets are tagged with a location, so head on over to Bing Maps, search for the location, click “map apps” at the very bottom, select the “Twitter app” and you’ll be able to browse through tweets sent near that location.

You can also ask your followers to help you find breaking news, like TBD.com did here during the hostage situation at the Discovery building in Maryland. This is where the @replies come in — people respond by @replying the originating account (by putting “@tbd” in their tweet), and then TBD can respond with an @reply of their own — for example, asking for more information or permission to use a photo they took. (Using “Twitpics” without permission, for example, is also a legal gray area).

One great way to expand your Twitter coverage of a breaking story is to “retweet” witness accounts from others, like KWGN did above during a wildfire in Boulder, Colorado. In essence, you’re republishing someone else’s tweet — under their profile name — to your followers. It’s like you’re adding quotes in your coverage by simply hitting the retweet button.

Covering news with social media

Covering the news these days has become more powerful with the addition of the web and social media, but it’s also more work. So let’s start by describing why reporters, photographers, producers and news organizations as a whole should update their social accounts — not as a series of “teases,” but behind-the-scenes nuggets mixed with real coverage.

First, news consumers are more impatient than ever, and the first reports from an evolving story often get the most social attention. For example, if three local TV crews descend on a crime scene, and one of them is updating Twitter with the first details, then those first accounts are most likely to spread the fastest — and people will be most likely to “follow” that crew for subsequent updates.

Second, it helps build anticipation for the reporting to come, even if it’s not a breaking story. Again, there’s an art form to this. It’s less like a “tease” and more like something you’d tell an interested friend. “Working on a great story about ____, and we’re headed down to ___ to talk to ____.” Then follow it up with an update or two, and a link to the finished story. And finally, if people are responding to the story, call out a few interesting responses in subsequent updates.

In essence, you’ve create a social storytelling arc throughout the day. We’ve heard from several reporters who say this approach has yielded new information while covering a story — and this information outweighs the risk of the competition chasing what you’re covering. Reporting something over social media is just that — reporting — and if you broke something there first, you broke it everywhere first. Don’t be afraid to take credit for it, which in turn, helps promote your social accounts.

When Twitter, when Facebook?

If you’re covering a breaking story, Twitter is best. Users tend to enjoy more frequent updates on Twitter, where a barrage of status updates on Facebook may not make you very popular.

Facebook is best for driving traffic to interesting stories, although we’d certainly recommend posting links on both platforms. Both Facebook and Twitter work well for asking for user feedback, although Facebook tends to drive more responses. This is also a function of your audience — there are more tech-savvy folks on Twitter, where Facebook essentially covers the online universe.

If you’d like, you can link your Twitter and Facebook accounts together, so a single update appears on both (Facebook page to Twitter here, Twitter to Facebook here.) But if you’re a frequent updater on Twitter, it’s best to keep them separate.

A few recommended tools and techniques

In the field, we recommend Twitter’s official app for your smart phone, formerly called “Tweetie” but now just “Twitter” — it’s available for iPhone, Android or Blackberry. (There are others, too, like Brizzly and TweetDeck for the iPhone, but we like Twitter’s app.) It allows you to juggle multiple accounts, and more important, to quickly snap a photo on your phone and automatically include it in a tweet.

Don’t sweat trying to compose the perfect photo or brilliant tweet — if you’re on a breaking story, just get what you can and send it out. Even a mediocre photo from a developing scene is better than none at all. (Plus, your web publishing team back in the newsroom will likely use it as an early photo in the online story.) A good rule of thumb for reporters is to get in the habit of snapping a photo and sending a tweet as soon as you arrive at a breaker — and then try to squeeze in one or two more while you cover the story.

Back in the newsroom, an editor/producer should be watching for these tweets and “retweeting” them out the main account, as well as wrapping that information back into the online story.

For Facebook, there’s the Facebook app as well as its mobile web site. Both are solid.

In the newsroom, we recommend TweetDeck (right) as a way to publish to Twitter and Facebook, as well as track conversations and evolving topics (during breaking news, for example, you can set up a bunch of searches that update in real-time). Seesmic and Brizzly are also popular.

If multiple people are updating the same account, there’s Hootsuite and CoTweet. To track the growth of your Twitter accounts, there’s TwitterCounter. (On Facebook, the page administrators have access to “insights”, which are Facebook’s metrics.) There are literally hundreds more, and here’s a good list of a few more favorites.

A few social media resources

To finish things off, don’t forget to visit LostRemote.com (@lostremote) for coverage of how the news media is using social media. For broader coverage of social media, we recommend Mashable (@mashable). Both Facebook and Twitter have set up resource pages for the media. And Poynter (@poynter) and Nieman Lab (@niemanlab) are two other terrific sources for the new world of journalism.

Well, that’s it for the first version of Lost Remote’s social media guide for journalists. Please email us at tips@lostremote.com for suggested changes and additions, and have fun!

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