Friday, June 12, 2009

10 ways journalists can use social media to improve stories

As a television reporter/anchor, I use social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogging, etc.) as often as I used to dial the phone. In short, I use these tools all day long.

They make my job easier by helping me get the information I need from the sources I desire at at time when I need to beat the clock. Yet, after taking part in a panel about the rise of social media and its impact on the media, I'm realizing that many of my peers still aren't seeing the value.

So .. I'm putting my David Letterman "Top 10" skills to the test .. and opting to share what I've found to be helpful on the front lines of today's local news coverage.

1. Morning tweets save time in the afternoon -- How often have you received an assignment at the morning news meeting and thought "how in the world am I going to find someone to talk about that?" Usually, we open our Rolodex and begin calling our friends and relatives asking, "hey, do you know anyone who has such-n-such?" Then we wait hours for someone to call back, hoping that a friend of a friend of a friend will be the right anecdote for our stories.

Twitter speeds up the process. If you're doing a story on local moms of multiples weighing in on the octomom, send out a tweet such as .. "do you or someone you know have twins or triplets? and have advice for the octomom? drop me a line at ... "

A few weeks back, I put out this tweet: "Bankruptcies are on the rise. I'm looking for individuals who've done it to share their story. If you're willing:"

Within minutes, I got a note from Rod Ice .. who was dealing with a serious financial crisis and was willing to go on camera that afternoon. Here's the story:

I never would have found an interview like this doing it the "old fashioned way". Twitter helps me find subjects faster and gives me more time to prepare their story before deadline.

2. Use Facebook's "status" for trial balloons -- Ever had thoughts about a possible story but wondered if it would fly before investing a lot of time and research? Use your Facebook status to gauge interest. For example, if your status reads "Has anyone found a real diet that works for overweight kids?" you can expect that readers with real ideas will weigh in. Even if they can't answer the question, they may share the story of their own childhood obesity problems .. or that of their child's. Bingo! Instant interview subjects. On the flip side, if no one comments in a 24-hour period, you can bet it's not a hot topic right now.

3. Blogging is for big kids too -- You're reading this post, therefore I've at least done something right when it comes to blog writing. If you're a working journalist, you should have a blog. The subjects on your beat will look for it before you come to visit them. Most importantly, blogging allows readers/viewers/listeners to get a more personal take on your story. Don't be afraid to share the inside story of the story you just put together. We all want to turn good followups, and getting the public to see you're in tune with the topic via your blog will help get sources to come to you with additional information.

In January, police discovered the body of a little girl in a dumpster. She'd been beaten by a parent. I wrote about it on my blog from the perspective of a parent who couldn't believe someone could do such a thing. That baring of my soul brought an email from a local man who knew of a area film aimed at keeping teen moms from tossing their babies away. A few phone calls later and I had the most unique "day two" story in the market. Here it is:

I never would have had that story had I not taken the time to blog, which really is an effective tool to interact with viewers/readers and get unique tips and feedback.

4. Go ahead and tip your hand -- Stop worrying about the competition knowing the topic of today's story. Unless it's a true exclusive, there's little danger in the other reporters in town catching up with you. Send tweets and FB statuses only about a topic and not the specifics. In other words, it's ok for others to know you've gone fishing; just don't tell them which pond you're at or what you're using for bait.

5. Become a social media voyeur for story ideas -- I log on to FB and up comes the home page with all the latest statuses for my "friends." One friend's status reads, "Anyone know a good way to make $115 in five days?" While I don't have a good suggestion for her, I'm going to keep tabs on what others suggest. If someone chimes in with a creative idea that no one has ever heard before, I'll message that person and see if it's a story. Likewise on Twitter and other social media platforms.

For example, when a major earthquake strikes, start browsing your FB Friends' status updates for anyone whose status includes "prayers for my brother in India ..." Remember how long it used to take to find a local connection? Now there's a way to find them by opening your cyber ears and listening in on the conversation. Become a fly on the wall for others' posts and you'll not only see which topics the public is really talking about, but you'll find the instant subject matter to tell the compelling parts of the story.

6. We're all in this together -- High School Musical made the song famous, but the concept applies to social media too. We're all in this together. That includes politicians, police officers, pro athletes, etc .. What are they saying on their profiles? Who are their "friends"? If a local public officials gets in trouble and you want to find the real story, look at the profiles of others on the government payroll until you find ones with friends on that same department. Then, contact them discreetly and see if they'll clue you in to the real story. During the tough economy, the status updates will also tell you when people are being layed off or when someone at the top gets fired. It's the kind of tips you need to beat the competition and sometimes beat the PR staff at the agency too.

7. Always update 60 minutes before air -- 5 p.m. is a great time to find lots of people on-line. Many folks are just getting home from work and catching up on the day's events. (It's easy to forget that most folks are NOT like journalists and don't get to check email and websites throughout the day.) By updating your FB status and a tweet, you can tease your big story in the 6 p.m. news, and you can go a step further by asking viewers for their concerns about the topic. (sometimes the viewers will mention something you forgot, and then you've still got time to get the info). I like to use my 60-minute rule in conjunction with live interviews by asking viewers what they would ask the person we're going to be interviewing. Not only will give you good questions, but then they'll tune in to see if you ask their question. Boom! Instant ratings help!

8. Elephants never forget and neither does social media -- What you write about today can pay big dividends the next day, week, or month. I'm always amazed at the number of "hits" some of my blog entries get many weeks after they're written. For example, I wrote a small blog entry about Katie Couric's return to Today. I just happened to be blogging when Matt Lauer mentioned that KC was returning on the following day for an important announcement. My blog post that day drew 1,000 hits and now, many many months later, it still draws a few dozen hits every week or so. The good thing is that it brings new viewers to my blog. If they stopped by to read about KC, maybe they'll browse around to my other topics and thereby broaden my audience. The larger audience feeds itself and gives me more folks to lean on for story ideas and the like. The blog also serves as a magnet for national and overseas media when they're looking to interview someone about a particular topic. In 2007, I blogged extensively about the murder of a pregnant woman at the hands of her married boyfriend. Because of the blog -- and not necessarily because of my reporting -- I've had calls from authors, national media outlets, etc .. looking for comments and info whenever the story has a new update.

9. Two "tweets" beats one "breaking news" -- When a local police department announced it was having a rare, evening press conference to discuss an officer-involved shooting, no one in the press had any idea what was on the line. There had been no scanner traffic to follow. No phone calls about police tape or ambulances. What could they possibly be talking about? The agency refused to give info over the phone and instead kept telling us to come to the press conference, which was still 90 minutes away.

A simple tweet-FB combo request for info: "Anyone know about a police shooting in Mentor tonight?" led to a number of instant messages requesting more info .. and then bingo! I got this message: "Eric - I have details if you need them. You can call my cell ..." It was from a dispatcher in a neighboring district. The tip led me to the neighborhood of the shooting before the press conference, and it allowed me to get a good interview with a witness that no one else had when the 11 p.m. broadcast began. Here's the story:

Again, without the use of social media, I wouldn't have had info on the shooting until after the press conference, and that would have been too late to get the personal interviews in time to make air.

10. Social Media helps keep you employed -- While there's no guarantee that being your organization's Bob Woodward ensures you'll keep a paycheck, it does mean you'll stand out from your peers. On the television side, there are many in this business who don't want to mix business with pleasure, and since they see FB and Twitter as social tools, they intend to keep them separate. I totally get that. Still, maybe there's a way to have a pair of FB and Twitter accounts .. or maybe allow the two to overlap a little here and there .. and you'll stand out. Plus, twitter can give you headlines in the field like never before, allowing you to know what the competition is doing as they're doing it. That too stands out to the bosses.

So that's it . that's how I use social media while on the clock .. and how it pays dividends for me every day.

Hope to "friend" you soon ;)

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