How Journalists Can Leverage Social Media

by Jason Falls |
Jason Falls
Jason Falls

Last summer I spent a good deal of time researching and preparing a presentation for Blog World & New Media Expo on putting social media in the newsroom. The point was to show media outlets how some were using web 2.0 and social media technologies to expand their online offerings and engage audiences around their news-gathering products. The focus was directed at executives and media outlets as opposed to individual journalists.

Tonight I have the honor of joining one of my favorite journalists, Todd Mundt of Louisville Public Radio and morning host at WFPL, in a presentation to the Louisville Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. We’ll share a good bit of information on how individual journalists can leverage social media to gather story ideas, monitor the buzz or happenings in their beats or communities, connect with influencers to have fast access to pertinent information they are reporting and engage with audiences to increase the impact of their work and promote it to larger audiences.

Here’s an exacerbated outline of what I will bring to the table. Todd certainly has plenty to add. I’ve long admired his effective, yet simple uses of social media, including posting what stories the WFPL newsroom is working on via Twitter just before I leave the office. It makes me have WFPL top of mind when I get in my car to drive home and makes me listen more often. Clever, he is.

Some General Points For Journalists To Consider

1. Consumers are not trying to take your jobs, they’re just using new tools available to them.

Journalists certainly can be taken aback by bloggers and consumer-generated media. But the citizen journalist, blogger, content provider online is just average Joe Q. Public using the technology that is now available to them. It’s not a personal front against you or your profession. Don’t be defensive with them. In fact, go the opposite route and embrace them and all their content. Know that as much as the public likes to produce content, most them also know where to rank the random from the schooled. You’re a journalist. Your content is going to be valued at a higher level because of your training.

2. Social media sites, even Wikipedia, are not reliable sources by themselves.

The biggest concern a journalist should have in diving into social media is thinking that all this user-generated stuff is reliable. By definition, Wikipedia is an unreliable source because it uses the wisdom of crowds to produce its fact. You can find great sources and resources through social media, but don’t forget your training just because you become comfortable in the space. A journalists insistence on fact-checking and multiple-sourcing is what separates good from what everyone else is doing.

3. As constraining as the time may be, your participation is the key to success.

You can give me all the excuses in the world. You have too many stories to cover in too little time and on too tight a deadline. But if you don’t embrace the audience waiting for you in social media, you soon won’t have enough of one to keep your job. The pointers below are design to help you build and maintain an audience through social media to reverse the downward trends tradition media has been suffering from.

How Reporters Can Leverage Social Media To Gather Story Ideas

1. RSS

RSS feeds allow reporters to monitor hundreds of sources in very little time. By subscribing to the content of industry websites, trade magazine’s online versions and even blogs of industry watchers, journalists have a cyber finger on the pulse of the beat without having to leave their laptop. Sure, if something is published there first, you are “scooped” to a certain degree, but if you find something on an industry blog, follow up with verifications and quotes and are the first true media source to report it, you’ll beat most people to the story and look good in doing so. Even if you just have all the feeds pumped into your RSS reader to search for sources on a topic, you’re ahead of 90 percent of your brethren.

2. Google Alerts/Live Search/Twitter Search

Just like public relations pros trying to monitor what’s being said about their brands online, you should monitor the terms, companies or individuals you’re covering. You never know when someone will Tweet, “Just saw Mayor Finebloom get arrested for groping a teenager at BW3’s!” Okay, maybe no one will ever Tweet that, but wouldn’t you like to be on top of it if they did?

Subscribe to Google Alerts on the keywords and the RSS feeds of the search results at and at to make sure when something is said online about that company or person, you know it. The great thing about all three is they are available as RSS feeds and come to your reader automatically if you’re using No. 1.

3. Participate in relevant blogs, forums and communities

Cover civic issues in your community? There might just be a forum like Louisville’s History & Issues where people talk about a variety of items not yet covered in the local news. If enough people are talking about it online and it hasn’t been covered offline, you’ll be the first. You can also build up your own reputation as a contributing member of these communities and a trusted source for information by participating. When you do that and someone has a hot tip, they’ll come to you first, knowing you’ll vet it appropriately and report on it if warranted.

And it’s not just forums or message boards. Relevant blogs, the community sections of other media outlets websites and social networks on certain issues (like – a social network of people supporting the energy solutions of Boone Pickens) are all powerful places to find ideas, sources and more.

4. Create news or sidebar elements using crowdsourcing

Once you have connected with these communities, be it on Twitter, Facebook or on a forum or message board, you have the opportunity to crowdsource to supplement your work. If you’re doing a story about how technology effects homeschooling and you regularly read and comment on Preschoolers and Peace, which has an engaged audience, maybe you can email Kendra Fletcher and ask if she would post a poll or survey for her readers for you. Better yet, if you have a few hundred followers on Twitter, you can just ask them the questions and collect answers to create some survey results to complement your stories. To be more scientific, you can create a survey with and just ask those you’ve connected with on your various networks to visit and take the survey.

How Journalists Can Use Social Media To Monitor Their Beats Or Communities

In addition to the items above (RSS, alerts and participating in relevant blogs or communities), there are some tools and strategies that can help reporters stay abreast of what is happening in their respective beats.

1. Twitter

Journalists have a hard time getting their heads wrapped around Twitter, as do many users when first confronted with the service. But if you think of Twitter for what it is — a big room full of people having conversations about a variety of topics that you can participate in or monitor if you like — you can start to see some benefit from it.

More importantly for journalists, Twitter is conversations happening here and now. As my friend Albert Maruggi pointed out at a Social Media Breakfast last year, Twitter is the police scanner of the 21st century. I would argue that it’s better because it’s not limited to emergency personnel. Twitter is anyone, anywhere in the right now. If something just happened that is newsworthy, someone is probably reporting it on Twitter. It’s foolish not to monitor it.

2. Twitter search

Though mentioned above, I wanted to repeat that searching for keywords or names of people or companies you cover on Twitter is the best way to see what’s being said. You can subscribe to the RSS feed but if there’s some sense of breaking news, you can just refresh the search page to see new results in almost real time. Twitter even tells you dynamically now many more Tweets mention the search term since your last scan right there on the page.

3. Twitter Local

A third-party application you will need to download to your computer, Twitter Local shows you all the tweets of people in a certain geographic area. The snapshot here shows the most recent Tweets within a 25 mile radius of Louisville, Ky., last Sunday morning. This is the application I would use as an assignment desk editor or producer covering a certain community. It shows you everything being said in an area, not just that said by people you follow.

How Journalists Can Connect With Influencers

Just like building relationships with your readers and audience members, connecting with newsmakers and influencers online is an important facet to leveraging social media. All of the relevant contacts — newsmakers, political candidates, public relations staff members or other journalists — are moving into roles with increased online presence. Many have Twitter profiles, Facebook accounts or even personal blogs. Make it a point to connect and communicate with those individuals in the online space. They’ll know you’re there and will use those mediums to reach you. You can then reach them there in return. Plus, if you know the Mayor’s Chief of Staff is active on Twitter and you can see when he last Tweeted, he has less chance of saying he didn’t get the message or or didn’t have time.

Additionally, there are several Web 2.0 tools and services to help reporters find sources, contacts and information when working on a story. Those include:

1. Help A Reporter Out

This e-mail-based listserv works like ProfNet but is monitored for spam and streamlined for efficiency by communications and PR innovator Peter Shankman. All you do is visit and file a query. The needs are then sent to a network of PR pros who have pledged to only respond with relevant information. Anyone who doesn’t is kicked off the list.

2. PitchEngine

PitchEngine allows reporters to search for social media press releases based on keywords or topic searches. While certainly very useful, PitchEngine is somewhat limited to date. It only offers up social media releases created by PR professionals using PitchEngines SMPR creation tools. My guess, however, is that Jason Kinzler’s creation will soon improve by offering aggregated information from other sources.

3. MicroPR

Very similar to HARO, MicroPR is a Twitter-based resource network that keeps queries and responses within the 140-character confines of a Tweet. Created by Brian Solis and Stowe Boyd, the service allows reporters to message @micropr on Twitter with their need, sends the need out to its network of sources, then points relevant responses back to the reporter. For those appreciating brevity, MicroPR is certainly useful.

How Journalists Can Grow Their Audience, Reputation And Relevance Using Social Media

As with anyone in social media, the more engaged you are with a community of followers and the more value you provide them, the more your community will grow. By being a journalist as opposed to someone less “qualified” to provide an unbiased look at issues, you will automatically have an air of credibility other bloggers or community sources might not have, unless you use your journalistic training as an excuse to be arrogant or elitist. Nobody likes an asshole, so don’t abuse your credentials that way.

Otherwise, by participating in conversations, offering your perspective, opinions and even insight, while respecting accuracy and the ethics of your profession, you’ll quickly become a well-though-of resource in the conversation if for no other reason than you elevate the level of conversation. Participation is the secret sauce. But here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Understand that the readers no longer come to you.

You must engage them where they feel comfortable. By extending your participation in the subject matter to groups on Facebook, interested parties on Twitter, pockets of people on message boards, forums or blogs, you actually promote your media outlet/content to those groups while building your credibility. Soon, they will start directing others to your content because A) It’s good and B) They “know” you.

2. Identify the 3-4 active community points and concentrate on them.

Frankly, if you’re covering, say, art and architecture, you’ll find 1,000 communities on-line that might be useful. Focus on those confined to your geographic area or containing the most people of influence to your audience. Twitter should be your catch-all, but you can’t be everywhere all the time. Pick the most active or useful communities but stay active in them.

3. Learn how to bookmark and build voting circles.

When new media writers are hired these days, they almost have to come with two qualifications: the ability to write and the ability to engineer traffic/promote that writing. If you are going to look to pick up some free-lance work as a writer for online properties, you’ll get more opportunities if you can prove you can drive traffic. If you can drive traffic, you’ll supplement your benefit to your full-time organization as well.

What this means is that you’ll need to become familiar with sites like Digg, Mixx, StumbleUpon, Reddit and the like, submit good content to those sites regularly and build up a network of friends who will vote for the content you submit. You’ll certainly be asked to vote for their submissions as well. As long as you don’t over-do it with submitting your own content all the time, you can become a traffic driver which comes in handy when you really want to push people to a particular piece you’ve written.

4. Make responding to comments part of your job.

The primary “community” you will build will be in the comments section of your pieces. If your outlet currently doesn’t allow for comments, push for them. If you’re at a large media outlet where trolls and anonymous punks populate the comments with sarcasm, dive in head first and hold them accountable on your pieces. They’ll eventually go away if they know you’re going to be participating there. By creating an environment of sharing and conversation as a supplement to your work, you’re building an environment for community to blossom. Care for it and guard it like it’s your most prized possession and it will grow larger than you ever imagined.

That’s quite a bit of advice squeezed into one blog post. Certainly there are some ideas I missed. So to you journalists or those who have some ideas of how to help journalists, what tools, techniques or strategies would you add to the list? What did I miss? The comments, as always, are yours.

IMAGE: Journalists on duty by Yan Arief on Flickr.

About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).