Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Journalists may show bias without realizing it

Sorry I've been MIA for the past month or so. I just closed on my first home, so when I'm not in the newsroom coaching citizen journalists, I'm either packing or paralyzed by my indecisiveness over paint colors. But that's a conversation for another day.

The Columbia Missourian, for which I was a student journalist from 2002 to 2004, recently revised its conflict-of-interest policy to include special points about journalists and their use of social media. If you're as opinionated as I am, you may find these additions interesting:
  • Political viewpoints should not be apparent through students or staffers' public profiles on social networking Web sites. Be careful what you post. Ask yourself: What would a source think?
  • If you don’t think an editor should see (what's on your profile), why would you want a source to see it?
  • Students or staff may be "friended" by a source or a subject they cover. It may even be in the interest of students and staff to "friend" a source in order to follow their business or campaign. In such cases, students and staff are accountable for viewpoints expressed on their private profiles as well. Again: What would a source think?
The policy draft is to be reworked in another week or two.

Now, I'm a passionate person. I have strong opinions. I'm trained to keep them off the page and out of my Facebook fan page updates -- but since personal Facebook and Twitter profiles are about creating your own personal brand, I have in the past let myself show my beliefs on everything from gun control to my choice of Starbucks vs Caribou, through "liking" certain brands, following various organizations, and joining particular groups. I have since opted out of those groups that express political views, because in the three years I have been on Facebook, I've branched my network out enough to where a source could very easily see my profile through a friend in the community. I've also recently taken on the role of Opinions editor, and I don't feel comfortable with readers knowing where I stand on the issue of climate change, for example, as I run letters to the editor that might support what I believe, especially if that ratio happens to be 3-1.

But, I have to ask, how far is going too far in all of this?

I completely agree with The Missourian's revision that political viewpoints should stay off a journalist's Facebook profile. But what about the new "Like" feature, which allows you to show your support for virtually any brand, company or organization out there? For example, I recently had a great experience at a particular hospital that happens to be an advertiser at my publication (well, the fact that I was AT a hospital wasn't great, but the staff was fantastic). My question here is, is it technically a conflict of interest for me to "like" that hospital on my Facebook page, but not the others, who also advertise with us?

And what if I attend the Chicago Gay Pride Parade, one of the biggest summer events in my neighborhood? Or if I participate in the Walk for Israel with my family? I potentially may not even agree with the beliefs behind either event; I may simply participate as a way of being social, in the physical sense for once! But must I not post those photos to my Facebook page, because I am a journalist? According to The Missourian's proposed policy... I don't think so.

A quality journalist knows how to keep his or her mouth shut when needed. But journalists also know how to have fun, and most of us do have lives, contrary to popular belief. And Facebook, as a company, has been branching out more and more to offer more features, but less privacy comes with that.

Furthermore, my role at The Beacon has put me in somewhat of a spotlight. My face is one of the publication's Twitter avatars and sometimes I write a column. To quote one Ron Burgandy, "People know me." Sort of. At least, some of them, them being readers, know me enough to friend me on Facebook, particularly if I've messaged them in response to a comment on our fan page.

"I'm kind of a big deal."

I never really considered that any of the 50-something groups I belong to on Facebook - most of which I never really follow - could in theory lead to a phone call to my boss. But then I have other journalist friends who are very open with their opinions via Facebook and Twitter about topics that could be considered journalistically biased if seen by a source or reader.

Where is the line drawn? Do you agree with The Missourian's policy revise? Should other publications follow suit? Or should social media, from a personal standpoint, be considered a private, personal "life"?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Blogging brings newsroom personality to life

Has anyone noticed what the Chicago Tribune has been up to lately? It's called Trib Nation, and it is the freshest thing I have seen newspapers do in a long time. Trib Nation has essentially taken multiple necessary elements to production - staff, readers, a social media platform, and, you know, that newsy stuff - and has thrown it into a mosaic of a blog that actually provides transparency into all that goes into making the Trib one of the strongest voices of Chicago (ahem - Chicago Sun-Times rocks, too).

From a video of Managing Editor Jane Hirt explaining editorial decisions, to an invite - YES, an open invite - to join Tribune Washington Correspondent Jim Tankersley for drinks and political talk, to news bites of the latest happenings inside the newsroom, this blog covers a lot of the "randomness" that just won't fit into print anymore. The blog is managed by Tribune staffer James Janega. To top it off, there's a Trib Nation Facebook fan page that coincides with the blog's mission, which of course is emphasized on multiple video platforms on Trib Nation's home page.

This is something social journalists should be talking about ... and looking to compete with.

Luckily, I can brag about my own Sun-Times Media West colleagues, particularly Emily McFarlan, aka Social Media Bad Ass. She's starting a blog over at the Elgin Courier-News that stands on a similar principle as Trib Nation: Transparency equals trust. She even went as far as to let readers vote on what the name of the blog should be. The winner? Between the Bylines (I was totally pulling for that one).

"I hear readers want to know more about the behind-the-scenes stuff at the newspaper, more humor, more chatty-types of things," McFarlan told me. "One reporter wants to contribute some beer reviews he used to run in features, back before we lost our features department. So I think reporters want a place to put all the things we don’t have room for in (the) paper.

"I’m seeing it as ... another way to dialogue with our readers that, you know, doesn’t limit us to 140 characters."
The blog hasn't gone live just yet, but McFarlan has already begun addressing what it's all about by answering reader-submitted questions through the paper's Facebook fan page:

I'm so excited about this because it shakes print media out of the normal, simple, easy way to engage with readers via Facebook and Twitter. And maybe, just perhaps, this kind of open communication between newsroom staff and readers could strengthen the trust consumers have in newspapers (and media as a whole). As I've mentioned in previous posts, with all the noise out there in the Webosphere, journalists really have to fight the good fight to stay relevant, alive, and loud enough to be heard. Perhaps a blog that doesn't necessarily focus on one news or sports niche but rather ... a newsroom niche ... is what allows each publication to stand out among the rest.

For the first time in some time, I feel a break-through coming on. Journalists are getting gutsier, taking chances, just letting the cards fall where they fall. McFarlan on Twitter and Janega on video both admit that they don't know how their friendly journo-blogs will develop. But the beauty is that this additional platform is something journalists can use uniquely separately than any other business in the free world - it's not marketing to sell more of its product. It's marketing to sell why we're necessary. And why no Internet or otherwise phenomenal world-wide communication invention will ever stomp out the need for good journalism.

Last week, a survey by British blogger Malcolm Coles and American PR strategist Adam Sherk indicated that social media is drawing less than 1 percent of traffic to news Web sites. James Tyree, the Chicago financier who led the buyout of the Chicago Sun-Times' publisher in October, gave newspapers about 10 more years to live ("Print newspapers to survive a decade, Sun-Times' Tyree says", BusinessWeek, April 6, 2010). The iPad was released this month, and there's buzz that this handy little device will be the media's life support. (The Wired offers an interesting analysis of this debate. Click here.) I have to admit, the second of an iPad commercial that shows the front page of the New York Times and the reader clicking to zoom in on a story is a Thing That Makes Me Go "Hmmm."

I think sometimes it's hard for newspaper journalists to let loose, have some fun, perhaps follow a fad (eek!). But with the stats, predictions and inventions mentioned above, I don't think it would be a waste of time, energy or money for a publication to take a cue from our Social Journalist friends and RSVP to this party that is hip, friendly and, wait for it ... fun.

Thoughts from other journalists? Readers, do you find a heightened interest or attraction to a newspaper that has a blog that aims to connect with you on a more personal level?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Is social media the open door to a more profitable hyper-local newsroom?

Perhaps with newspapers' adoption of social media as a business tool, it's time to visit the debate over whether news organizations should start charging money for its Web site material.

I know, I know, such a discussion mostly leads to a deep hole in which sits a group of newspaper journalists more miserable than they were before the discussion began. So many differing opinions, but at the end of the day, our news is still free online, and it's up to the publishers of the world to change that. The overtime hours spent slaving over our computers day after day for very little compensation is still just a labor of love, and no matter how much or how little readers pay to read our work - we'll still be back at it the next morning.

With that in mind, I merely voice my opinion on the issue, and offer how social media's integration into the newsroom might change yours.

A newspaper's goal when embracing social media should be to engage and attract readers, bringing them to its Web site, and hopefully also lead them to a subscription to the print product. But does that really make sense? These readers, most of whom do not have a print subscription and have no intention of getting one, in this scenario are getting to interact with and enjoy their local newspaper for free.

It would be worth questioning whether social networking tools are becoming the new "free" form of getting news and other information, while the goods (i.e., the full Internet product) cost them money. For example, a newspaper could do the same as it is already doing now by linking to stories on its Web site from its Twitter and Facebook profiles. Sometimes the story's lede is included, offering the most important and relevant information up front. If the consumer wanted to know more, they would then go to the news Web site and log in under their paid account. The newspaper would also continue to use social networking as a platform to further engage readers, get to know their dynamic, promote coming features and find sources.

I'm not sure whether this would ever work for national and international news sources, as news of that spectrum can be found in so many places online today. But I do think it could work for local newspapers, particularly smaller publications that focus on small towns or suburbs. Those are the print publications that are strongest, in my opinion, mainly because:
  • Readers really can't get that basic, hyper-local information anywhere else.
  • Residents want to know about their schools, neighbors and where their local tax money is going.
  • One can find more loyalty to a local newspaper that has covered a particular town for decades.
PaidContent.org released this analysis of how newspapers that do charge for online content are faring. You'll notice the article points out that "the newspapers tend to be located in smaller, often rural markets; online-only subscriptions are typically priced at a substantial discount to the print edition." Some of the papers listed have experienced a drop in Web site traffic since implementing a pay wall - but Assistant Managing Editor Donn Friedman of the Albuquerque Journal pointed out, “We are still committed to the ... idea that our content has value.” What an important idea to hold onto.

If journalists would stand up for the hard work they put into bringing quality content to readers, I don't believe we would be in this debacle of trying to find a way to win the fight against online media. I understand that one newspaper doesn't want to take the plunge before its competitor, for fear that readers will flock to the free source. But why don't all businesses just take the plunge together? Our jobs are far too important and relevant, in an online society or not, to allow ourselves to have such weak confidence to believe that readers won't pay for the information they want and deserve.

I really feel that, while very important, social media is further enhancing readers' expectations that information should be at their fingertips for free any time they want it. This is the world we live in. But if news organizations did put up a pay wall for online content, perhaps it would once again put us in a higher classification of reliable sources, rather than mixing us in with the blogs, chat rooms, amateur Web sites and inaccurate tweets that are out there. It would make us THE relevant source again.

Do other journalists agree? Is the adoption of social media inside a newsroom what we've been waiting for - an arrow pointing down the path that will lead us toward a better, safer, more profitable future in the face of an increasingly paperless society? What about the average reader - would you pay to read your hyper-local news online, if you were also guaranteed free access to "on the surface" news via Facebook and Twitter?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

YouTube spreads word of social media's relevance

This week I thought I would share a few YouTube videos that really capture the essence of social media's stronghold on American society.

If you're a social media geek like me, you've probably seen this "Social Media Revolution" video. I love it! My favorite moment is at 3:29: "We no longer search for the news ... the news finds us." This is so important to remember when thinking about innovative ways to bring readers back to your news organization's Web site. We talk so much about flashy photo galleries, captivating blog topics, etc. - but to expect your readers to go looking on their own for those features is unrealistic. These days, you just have to bring it to them (just like we bring papers to their doorsteps), and the easiest and most results-oriented way to do so is to get it up on their Facebook or Twitter feed.

I really believe there are many print journalists who believe that social media is a fad. I've been seeing more and more of these print journalists jump onto the bandwagon, but I'm afraid I don't see the passion for it as often as I would hope. At 3:40, the above video makes a simple but excellent point: Social media isn't a fad; it's a fundamental way in which we communicate. Based on the statistics in this video, it's obvious that journalists need to be a part of this phenomenon - not so much because it's "a fad" or because we need to know what readers are talking about, but because it's a significant communications tool that can truly enhance our work, even in the days when news media is shifting to online.

'Social media = punk rock'
What's really amazing to me is when journalists don't believe in what they see unfold during high-profile breaking news, such as the 2009 events of Michael Jackson's death, the Balloon Boy farce, or more seriously, Iran's Twitter revolution. No matter the level of seriousness of the event, users jump onto social media by the masses in times of breaking news (See: Make most of social media during breaking news), not only to share information in seconds, but to also have a voice in the event. Even before "Balloon Boy" Falcon Heene was found, a trending topic of #saveballoonboy was created in minutes on Twitter, and T-shirts that said "Go, Falcon, Go!" had hit the Web within hours. News consumers have the ability, the voice, and the power to make a difference in how we as a society absorb change - let's be the journalists who help shape that voice to be as informed as possible. Take this video, "Social media is the new punk rock," to see what I mean. Rock on.

As much as I push for journalists to really embrace social media as a necessary part of the job, I promise I would never take it this far:

Have a great week!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Twitter can be platform for press releases that didn't make it to print

If you're a journalist, social or not, you are all too familiar with the words "write short." Those two simple words strike a chord with most writers - I mean, we have a lot to say. And people have a right to know what we have to say! Right? Of course they do - however, in the days of minimal advertising revenue and high printing costs, newspaper editors nationwide are forced to keep most stories 15 inches or less.

With that in mind, let's talk tweets. I often hear Twitter users and nonusers alike criticize the micro-blogging site for its concept of keeping tweets at 140 characters or less. The argument usually goes that if they can barely get a thought out under that restriction, what's the point? So with that length restriction, many journalists have taken the easy route on Twitter - tweeting only headlines with the stories' links behind, or a simple call-out for sources. It's fast, short, and easy.

But what if we think outside the box? What if we combine the facts that news space is lacking, Twitter is readily available, and between both mediums, hundreds if not thousands of people are still waiting for us to give them information?

Add to that the hundreds, or thousands, of press releases sitting in your newspaper's inbox, with each sender's expectation that his or her news is your priority, and they will no doubt call the newsroom by the end of next week demanding to know why it wasn't printed.

Enter a concept I have personally developed that can, as time permits, relieve some of our sorrows surrounding timely press releases and lack of newspaper space. I call it Release Tweeting.

In my job as associate editor for citizen journalism, I retype a lot of press releases. I compile brief rails and calendars and edit submitted copy on a regular basis. With restricted newspaper space, it is unrealistic to believe that I can get every single press release in the paper, even all those with a time element. It's always frustrating when I'm going through my e-mail press releases to get a few printed tomorrow, and finding an event that's happening tonight. I never got it in the paper. The person never called to complain (hooray), but this event does sound really cool. A lot of people would be interested. It's newsworthy. What do I do now?

In the days before social media and easy-to-update Web content management systems, the answer would be to throw it out. It's too late to do anything with it. But now, not only can we add the event to our organization's Web site calendars, we can get it out even more immeidately via Twitter.

The Release Tweet may not reach as many as it would in the paper - but it would reach a different dynamic that includes hundreds or thousands of readers or potential readers. All it takes is going back to the basics. In the Release Tweet, simply answer: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? And include a contact number or Web site behind the info, if you have it.

Voila. You've gotten the information out to somebody, so you can stop kicking yourself that you prioritized a longer story over more calendar items in yesterday's paper. And what's better, if the press release's sender does call you Monday morning demanding to know why his or her information didn't make it into the paper, you have a response with an anwer and some resolve: "Please understand we receive hundreds of press releases a day. I'm so sorry we could not get yours in the paper, as we agree that it is an important event, but you might be pleased to know that we did tweet it and add it to our online event calendar, so you can direct those who would like to know more to those resources."

Here's an example of two of my Release Tweets from last week on @Beacon_Readers:

Some extra Release Tweet tips that aren't exemplified above:

  • If a Release Tweet is related to a business, entertainer or organization, be sure to work that @ mention in the tweet if said subject has a Twitter account. It will likely garner a ReTweet, which can in turn bring you more followers.

  • Use hashtags as they are relevant. In the above example, a hashtag such as #AmericanIdol would have garnered more interest across the Twittersphere, again bringing in more followers and RTs.
Many social media experts strongly recommend that a business tweets about more than just its products. "Use Twitter to inform, educate and inspire action, not for blatant selling," say the experts at Lyris HQ E-mail Marketing in its 10 Twitter Tips. It's hard for a news organization to follow that advice because, well, we are an information source, period. Anything we tweet is our product - offering information is the nature of our business. And of course the obvious link to include in each tweet is one of our own.
But Release Tweeting is our chance to break away from promotional information that only brings followers back to our Web sites (which, in all respect, can get annoying to our followers). It gives followers something extra valuable that is not just related to us, which will only enhance appreciation, while saving our behinds in the process. I also see this as a way to really hone in on keeping your tweet quality high, rather than just tweeting for the sake of tweeting, which can become obvious over time.

The hardest part about Release Tweeting is narrowing down the press release to that 140 character limit. But, even at 140 characters, these tweets sure have a lot of punch.
What are other Social Journalists out there doing to take advantage of social media's accessibility? Please share in the comments below.
Happy tweeting!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Time management, social media and deadlines

Time management is an issue for any social media manager. For a journalist who needs to get a daily paper out, it only makes meeting deadlines all the more challenging. But it is possible to make the most of social media while also getting tomorrow's paper delivered on time.

I have worked with editors who express doubt that social media is worth a journalist's time. I've also worked with editors who can't get enough of cross promotion between Web and print products. But many journalists may ask, where's the balance? How much time spent on social media is too much? Or, how little is too little?

To answer these questions, it's only necessary to check in with your time management skills. As Matt Dominis, Web editor for Sun-Times Media, sums it up:

"Every time I log into a social media site at work, time disappears into a very large black hole."
How true for so many of us. For that reason, I want to outline a few tips I have picked up along the way while successfully managing two social media accounts for The Beacon-News (Twitter and Facebook), a daily print features section, and three personal social media accounts with which I keep up on a daily basis (Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn).

Ask yourself: Why is your publication using social media?

It is imperative that every social journalist answers this question. Because the past year saw such an increase in the number of news outlets jumping on the social networking bandwagon, you must strategize on how your publication and its branding will stand out from the competition. Make a decision on what your purpose is with each respective social account: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, whatever you may be managing - much like you would for your personal accounts. This question must be evaluated consistently, because your answer could change on a daily, or even hourly, basis. Once you have an answer, you'll be able to tweak your social interaction to get exactly what you're looking for, and you'll come up with smart post topics more quickly. Other great questions to ask yourself include:
  • Is your news organization on Facebook to find local sources?
  • Are you trying to increase Web site traffic?
  • Attract more interest in the print product? 
  • Gain better understanding of social media?
  • Is your news organization on Twitter simply because the competition is?
  • Do you plan to use it only to blast headlines as they go online, or to talk to other Twitter users?
Have a purpose with every Facebook post or tweet, and you'll find that the quality and content of each post will come to you more easily as you manage your time - or multitask, as Craig Newman puts it when asked how he successfully manages The Chicago Sun-Times' Twitter account while fulfilling other newsroom duties as the assistant managing editor/special projects. "Time management? Ha! Multitasking. Posting to five different places at once - usually while waiting for CMS to catch up," he says. "Phone access is crucial ... especially for feedback with the followers, questions, ranters, etc."

Find a social media management tool you like

"Use apps that lets you see multiple social networks in one place," advises Tiffany Black, editorial producer at InStyle.com and "Writing and Editing for the Web" instructor at MediaBistro. There are many tools available for download to help you manage multiple social media accounts, including your personal ones.
  • Hoot Suite: This is my favorite. With Hoot Suite, I can manage @Beacon_Readers, @CynthiaGoldberg, my personal Facebook page and my personal LinkedIn profile, all in separate tabs on one screen. It's much easier and faster than logging into various accounts many times a day, and it has great features such as tracking how many clicks you get on each link posted. It also makes retweeting more convenient. Other helpful management tools include:
  • TweetDeck: Log into your Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace accounts here and view them in different columns all on the same screen. It is reported to be the most popular social media application.
  • CoTweet: This business-oriented application allows multiple people to communicate through Twitter accounts and stay in sync while doing so. "No dropped balls, no stepping on each other's toes," its Web site says.
  • PeopleBrowsr: PeopleBrowsr describes itself as a "Social Search engine and a Conversation Mine" that dives into digital conversations and engages across multiple networks at the same time.
For more info, read "Five Twitter Management Tools You Can't Live Without."

When to post

"Set times that you will check social media because it can be a time suck ... something like once a day from x to y time," Black says.

I have committed at least three times of the business day to posting to my professional social media accounts. No matter the number that is right for you, the key is to remain consistent. I like to post first thing in the morning, at lunch, and within my last hour in the newsroom. That's not only when it's easiest for me based on my print deadlines, but they're also our peak hours on The Beacon-News' Web site - which tells me it's peak time on Facebook and Twitter, too. I also like to use these times to read the posts and tweets of those I'm following, too, so I can engage with the paper's community and potential followers as much as possible.

Stay committed to your designated times, and you'll find the level of interaction with your following at those times will increase. Let breaking news and other posts such as finding sources come and go naturally; they will be quick posts anyway. I recommend the following in terms of frequency of posts:
  • Twitter: Tweets can get lost from the home feed very quickly if your followers are following hundreds of other accounts (and not taking advantage of Twitter lists). Tweet smartly and tweet often. A close friend of mine, Online and Social Media Marketing Manager of Perficient and social media blogger Erin Eschen, recommends at least 10 tweets a day. As a news organization, I believe even going up to 20 tweets in a day, depending on how slow or fast-paced a news day it is. Social journalists are a different species in the Web 2.0 world than other businesses - users are of the frame of mind that news should come to them, so let's give it to them as often as possible without becoming overwhelming.
  • Facebook: My opinion is to keep your limit at three to five average posts a day, with room for two to three breaking news updates or otherwise immediate and necessary posts. You don't want to post to Facebook too often, as your fans may just end up hiding you from their news feed if you start to get in the way of their friends' updates.
Follow and embrace your competition

View your competition for what it is: Competition of your readers' time, interest and money. Be sure to follow every news outlet in your immediate area, as well as major U.S. and world news outlets. You'll see how often, or how little, your local competition is posting, and it will keep you on your toes in terms of coverage. If their post quality is only so-so, do not use that as your standard for quality. Use it as a challenge and tell yourself (and your readers) that your posts will be better and more worth your following's time. To follow your local TV, radio and newspaper competitors may take some time away from your duties to manage social media and producing a newspaper, but it is just as important to read your competition's Facebook and Twitter feeds as it is reading, watching or listening to its product.

Don't let the weekends stress you out

If I have time, I like to post to The Beacon-News' Facebook page on the weekends. And because of news' 24/7 nature, fans and followers appreciate the updates even on the weekends. Perhaps your newsroom has more than one manager of social media tools - if this is the case, one of you should be able to post on the weekends. If it is just one person, do what you can to keep the conversation going even on low activity days. But remember that most people are on Twitter and Facebook less on the weekends, so don't feel bad if you are not as active as you are during the week.

Take advantage of mobile devices

If you have a Blackberry or iPhone, download a Twitter application with which you are comfortable (I like UberTwitter), as well as the standard Facebook app. Check your @replies and fan page comments on your way to the newsroom, and in the evening before heading to bed. Oftentimes readers will @reply or write on The Beacon's Facebook wall questioning the outcome of an accident or other newsworthy event they witnessed - you want to be able to reply to them in a timely manner, even if just to say, "we are still looking into it." A smart phone will help you stay on top of remaining valuable to your readers at all hours of the day, and will keep you connected to what your following is talking about. Just don't let it consume you to the point that you are the person at the bar every Saturday night tweeting for work. Take a break!

The best advice I can offer above all is to make post quality your No. 1 priority, and that deserves quality time. Take every posting session seriously, and give yourself time to make it worth something to your following. I go back to my first point: If you don't know what you are looking to get out of social media as a news organization, why are you a part of it? Have a purpose and stay committed to it. It will make the time that social media takes from our print duties well worth the cost.

"(Social media has) got to be woven in as an expectation, not an add-on," says University of Missouri journalism professor Joy Mayer.
I couldn't agree more.

If you have some time management tips of your own for the social journalist, please share. Have a great week!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Journalists' voices louder with every little tweet

Journalists are used to operating behind the scenes. Let's face it: We document life's excitement, drama, tragedy and comedy, all the while leaving our perspectives out of it, save for a byline. We confine our own opinions to our cubical mates, our editors and our families.

For this reason, I have struggled with the concept of humanizing myself through social media branding. More than a year ago, I began tweeting for The Naperville Sun in a robotic fashion, merely blasting out headlines a few times a day. I quickly realized that while it is a thin line to walk, social media allows journalist moderators to let their sense of humor shine, and provide acceptable, objective commentary about developing news or issues in town that deserve investigation.

As I mentioned in my blog post of 2/8/10, a Facebook or Twitter account takes free speech to a new level, giving readers a new avenue to get in touch with their local newspaper. We should not deny them of that. But I also like to view "the rules" of Facebook and Twitter interaction much like the rules of our news blogs or story comment fields. I like how The Quad-City Times lays out its rules for the blogging reader best:

  • Keep it clean.
  • Don't threaten.
  • Be truthful.
  • Be nice.
  • Let us know if it's getting out of hand.
  • Share what you know.
  • Stay focused (and on topic).
But what do you do when these rules are ignored on Facebook or Twitter? If a person veers off topic to point out what's wrong with your brand, but he or she isn't necessarily insulting ... how do you respond, if at all?
Take this recent example of an off-topic complaint about The Beacon-News on its Facebook page, and how it spiraled into a conversation about how much these readers dislike The Beacon's tabloid format, which launched in September (please click on the image if the type is too small for you):

In my experience watching what other news outlets do with social media and how my own followers respond to various approaches of communication, I find it highly respectable when a social journalist interacts with a fan or follower, no matter the circumstance. Of course, for some newspapers such as the Chicago Sun-Times, which has thousands of fans and followers, this is a much more difficult task. But it should be done as often as possible, no matter the size of your following.

It's also important to note that a complaint in an @reply on Twitter is relatively private, i.e. your other followers won't see it unless you RT it, which wouldn't be necessary. But on your Facebook page, it is out there. Your fans will see how you chose to handle it, and your actions will no doubt create an opinion of your branding skills.

In a case such as this that includes a complaint via Facebook about something that no one in your newsroom has much control over, I choose the avenue of a polite response. It shows that we look at what fans are writing on our page, and we're taking their posts seriously:

You'll notice that regardless of my even tone, one of the readers continued to rant, even using against me a previous column I wrote like my blog post from 2/8/10 that criticizes the city of Aurora, Ill., for eliminating comments altogether. It definitely irked me, but I let it go. He's right. The social reader does have the freedom to interact with his or her hometown newspaper, or with the White House, or with Crate and Barrel via Facebook, as long as there is a Facebook fan page available. And, regardless of his tone with me, I remained consistent with the direction I want The Beacon-News' Facebook page to go, and proceeded to kindly answer his "on topic" question.

My goal and what all social journalists' goal should be is to make sure that we embrace social media to our benefit. When it comes to media especially, many outsiders love to talk us down and call us names. It will continue to happen whether or not we have a Facebook profile. The secret is to keep at our own mission for the benefit of all readers, even those who might be full of gripes. It's not always possible to respond to every complaint, but it is possible when you have an easily attainable social platform that broadcasts your human side to your entire following. And it's always possible to remain positive and polite.

I'm curious if anyone has other suggestions of how to handle the complainers and naysayers on Facebook and Twitter. Please post your advice in the comment field of this blog! And remember, on topic, please ;-)

I'll leave you with my own guidelines of how to stay human while on the social media bandwagon, regardless of whether your following is mostly pessimistic or optimistic:
  • Talk to your readers. If you want them to get in on the conversation, do so yourself. Don't hide behind your computer screen. This also will inevitably help you get to know your audience better, which will inevitably lead to a better product.
  • Don't ignore complaints or questions. Answer as many as possible.  If you don't have an answer, pass it on to another editor or reporter who does. An example:

This was a case in which I was originally trying to help the reporter, Rowena Vergara, by RTing her mission of finding comments for a story she was working on related to School District 308. One of my followers needed more details before answering, which I then realized I could not provide. I simply RTed it back to her, and she got back to him with an answer.
  • When RTing a breaking news headline, or tweeting your own bit of news information from your brand's Web site, add some clever commentary. It will make your link look more enticing, and it will show your followers that you do, in fact, have a personality. @CraigNewman does a great job of this with the @SunTimes Twitter page.
  • Make your avatar your face, if your work Twitter account is also a personal one. Check out my Twitter page for The Beacon-News: www.twitter.com/Beacon_Readers. The bio states exactly what followers are following: Readers' Editor Cynthia Goldberg (there is a seperate Twitter account just for news headlines @BeaconNews). I made my avatar my smiling face to offer some personality, a human aspect, and a window into the newsroom. Another example of this tactic is meterologist @GingerZee from NBC 5 news in Chicago. So, if you're a reporter or an editor and you plan only to use Twitter for news purposes, don't feel like you have to use your brand's logo or masthead. Put your face out there, and you just might start to see more interaction.
If you want to learn more about humanizing yourself in the face of social media marketing, I highly recommend this Poynter Webinar from November. It touches on how to handle "the haters," too.