Category Archives: Social Media

Want Facebook virality? Put it in an image

(Note, 12/4/13: When I wrote this post almost two years ago, everything here was true. Now, much of it no longer applies.

The timeless summary: Experiment with different forms of posting, watch your own data, adjust based on what you see.)

“You can’t always control who walks into your life but, you can control which window you throw them out of.”

Sure, some people might overlook the misplaced comma and find it moderately funny. If you had made that your Facebook status, you might get a handful of likes.

Now take two minutes to put it in all caps in red Comic Sans on a black background, like so:

That has 1,087 shares as of the time I’m writing this. People like sharing photos. It requires much less of them than reading and digesting an entire story.

As far as journalists/social media folks are concerned, it means we have to look for opportunities to post our stories as photos, not links. Then you put a link in the description and reap the benefits of the increased virality.

I’m not suggesting you do this:

Rather, look for opportunities to create images like this:

The image came from a blog post by ProPublica’s on-fire Dan Nguyen. But instead of posting a link to the blog post, we posted that as a stand-alone photo, then linked to the full news app in the description. As of me writing this, it has 17,210 likes,  10,121 shares and 1,293 comments.

For comparison’s sake: on a typical ProPublica Facebook post, we get somewhere around 10-20 shares, likes and comments. When we first launched the SOPA Opera app, we posted the link and got 32 likes, 55 shares and 2 comments. Another posting later in the week got 69 likes, 73 shares and 14 comments.

Importantly, we’ve gotten a lot of traffic from people clicking through to the app from the link in the photo’s description. And we picked up about 1,000 new fans for the Facebook page, which is a huge chunk considering we had about 26,000 to begin with.

So the take-away: If you have great art, whether it’s a graphic or a photo, let it be the main attraction. You don’t have to post everything as a link. Imagine the missed opportunity if we had presented the same thing like this:

(Side note: If you wish to share this post on Facebook and you’d like to help make the point, you might consider sharing this image created specifically for this post.)

When cops and Twitter tell different stories

July 4 in Philadelphia offered us a solid case study on the proper place of Twitter in reporting. Word of a shooting at a crowded Center City fireworks show spread rapidly through Twitter, and some people are disappointed that local media did not report on it. I’m about as big of a Twitter fan as you’ll find, but I mostly disagree with the criticism.

In case you have a short attention span, here’s the quick version:

  • When monitoring Twitter for breaking news, one first-hand account is worth far more than 1,000 tweets of hearsay.
  • Tweets of hearsay still have value and shouldn’t be ignored.
  • Think of Twitter users as sources, and vet them the same way you’d vet any other source.

What follows is a recreation of the night and an explanation of how some reporters responded.

One important take-away from all of this: If anyone were offering real evidence in a haystack like this, you need to know a few tricks to find that needle. If you haven’t mastered the possibilities of Twitter’s advanced search, learn them now before you’ll need them.

One trick is to narrow your search to within a few miles of the location, and search for phrases a witness might use. During the Discovery crisis in Silver Spring, Md. last year, I was able to find a few people inside the building by a geo-targeted search for phrases like “I’m safe” and “I’m OK.” I also searched for “Discovery”+”works there” to find the people saying “OMG my brother/wife/friend works there,” then messaged them to see if we could get in touch with that person.

And lastly, I’d make the point that in the midst of Breaking News Information Chaos like this, when hundreds of people are reporting their own news, the role of the trusted news organization or individual reporter becomes more important, not less important. Readers are waiting for us to provide a level of authority they don’t grant  fellow users.

Facebook delivers interviews for breaking, after-hours story

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It was almost 6 p.m. when we discovered in the newsroom that Andrew Stack, the pilot who attacked the IRS building in Austin, was a graduate of the Milton Hershey School, right in our backyard.

For my first 2.5 years at The Patriot-News I covered the residential school for underprivileged children, so I offered to help find classmates who knew him in the 30 minutes I had before I needed to leave for another commitment. I first checked the two main online forums where alumni gather — the Milton Hershey Alumni Forums and TheMilt.com — but no one was discussing it yet.

So I turned to Facebook. I searched for “Milton Hershey School,” but there was no discussion on the school’s main fan page, nor in several other general groups. I searched for “Milton Hershey School alumni,” but no luck there either.

Then I tried “Milton Hershey School Class of,” hoping to find his specific graduating class. Wouldn’t you know it…the very first match was a 33-member group for the Milton Hershey School Class of 1974, which was Stack’s year. As Maeby Funke would say: “That was a freebie.”

Less than an hour earlier, one classmate had written on the group’s wall:

I’m in disbelief…it’s apparently our Andy Stack that crashed his plane into the building in Austin Texas today…I read his “manifesto” online, and he even mentions living in Harrisburg after graduation…I can’t belief it…

I sent him a message, respectfully explaining that I was a reporter who was looking to speak to classmates who had a recollection of him. I sent the same message to four others who had posted recently on the group’s wall.

At this point, as is always the case with using social networks for reporting, you simply cross your fingers and hope that someone is motivated to respond. I find my success rate is usually about one response for every five or six messages I send out. I personally had to get going — my dodgeball team was counting on me! — but I had given the classmates our city desk number, so I was free to leave.

I was literally standing up from my desk to leave when an editor said someone was on the phone for me. It was one of the classmates, and it had been less than five minutes since I had messaged him. I can miss the beginning of the dodgeball game for this, I thought, so I took the call and got a great interview. From my story:

Several years ago, trying to find lost graduates of the Milton Hershey School class of 1974, Mike Macchioni tracked down a man in Texas whom he hadn’t seen in 35 years.

“He was polite, but very abrupt,” Macchioni recalled. “He said he didn’t want to have anything to do with anyone from the Milton Hershey School or the Milton Hershey School itself. He didn’t give the reasons why, but he said, ‘You know, it’s nothing against you personally. That’s just the way it is.’ ”

Macchioni then asked if he could update the man’s contact information in the school’s directory.

“He said he didn’t care one way or another,” said Macchioni, a Hershey native. “He was always very short-tempered. He always struck me as very odd, but brilliant. Smart as hell.”

I filed that and a little bit of the locally relevant material from his “manifesto,” assuming it’d be an addition to an AP story or a break-out, then got up from my desk to leave.

Once again, my phone rings.

It’s another of the classmates I had messaged. This one considered himself friends with Stack. Stack was the bassist in his band — he even remembered the band name, The Mythical Maze — and offered some insight into Stack that no one else would be finding:

“Even though we were practicing all the time and really trying to do well as a group, Andy was still distant,” he said. “He was a part of the group, but he wasn’t the party kind of guy. He wasn’t the type that wanted to get together with his buddies. He was off on his own.”

At this point, I know I’m not playing in any dodgeball game tonight.

I quickly type up the two interviews I’ve got, and all of a sudden I’ve got a 15-inch story that came out of nowhere and took less than an hour to assemble. Just when I hit the send button, I get a message from a third classmate on Facebook:

“Andy was always a little off and unsteady,” Mottin, of Sewell, N.J., wrote to The Patriot-News. “He also had a hair-trigger temper. Plus he had a brilliant mind. Combined, they were a highly volatile cocktail just waiting to explode.”

A few things to remember out of this (the final story is here):

1) I would not have been able to find these sources if I weren’t already familiar with the school and the advanced searching abilities of Facebook. What if the aforementioned online forums, not Facebook, were the home of all the discussion, and I didn’t know those forums existed or how to find them? It highlights why, as a beat reporter, you need to know where every ounce of online discussion in your area is happening.

2) This all came together in less than an hour, after hours, but any reporter familiar with using Facebook for reporting knows there’s nothing extraordinary about what I did. If you’re in a hurry, you have to know how to use these tools before they’re quickly needed.

3) If you’re a reporter who happens to be well-sourced with every graduating class of the last 40 years in every school district in your area, more power to you, but most of us aren’t. For the rest of us, the value of a network like Facebook really shows up in stories like this.

In a pinch, Twitter found a long shot source

When you’re the only reporter in the newsroom on a Sunday night, you have to be ready to write any kind of story — even if you have no prior sourcing on it whatsoever. I know how to reach the police chief, but what happens when you need to do a political story, you can’t reach the reporter who usually covers it and you don’t have any important numbers on file?

For me, the answer was Twitter. And it saved my story.

The situation: We were behind several newspapers and Web sites that were reporting Sen. Dave Argall, a relatively big-name politician in Pennsylvania, was going to announce his candidacy for a Congressional seat Monday morning. My job was to catch up, and as anyone who has ever worked a weekend shift knows, that’s no easy task mon a Sunday night.

I didn’t immediately know who to call. Once I came up with some ideas, I was only able to uncover work numbers and e-mail addresses. Sometimes on a Sunday night you have to just cross your fingers and send a few e-mails, make a few hail-mary calls to people who may possibly know people and then accept the reality: chances are good that none of it will work and your story won’t be all that great. It’s not a good feeling but sometimes it happens.

Instead, I turned to Twitter. I knew the county’s Republican committee was on Twitter, but it wasn’t following me so I couldn’t direct message the account. Shortly before 8 p.m. I tweeted:

I realize it’s a longshot, but anyone out there have contacts with @DauphinGOP? One that’d be available for comment on a Sunday night?

Then I intended to go back to work on more old-school methods, trying to think of other ways to get people on the phone. But it took just two minutes before the responses started coming in.

The first person, who works for a political campaign, had the GOP chairman’s home phone number, which was unavailable in the phone book. There was no answer when I called, but I left a message.

The second person had an ex-boyfriend who works as a political consultant for Republicans. She had already e-mailed him, asking if he could help me out.

The third person describes herself as a GOP activist and simply asked: “What do you need from the Dauphin GOP? May be able to get you in touch with them.” I told her about my story, and she went to work for me.

The fourth person was a Republican committeeman himself, and though I knew he was a local politician I was unaware that he was on the committee. After determining that he wouldn’t be the best interview himself, he gave me the chairman’s cell phone number. No answer there either, so I left a message.

The fifth person was also well-connected, but at this point I told her I was feeling optimistic about my chances from the other four. I might come back to her, I said.

Even though I left two messages earlier, I tried the chairman again. This time he picked up, and though he was minutes away from putting his kids to bed he was happy to answer a few questions. The interview was exactly what I needed, and turned what would have been a fairly lousy story into one that accomplished exactly what it needed to do.

A few take-aways for journalists:

  1. If I were sitting in my cubicle thinking, “Who could help me with this story?”, none of the five people would have immediately popped into my mind, and I certainly wouldn’t have met them outside of Twitter since this story wasn’t on my beat. This is the power of Twitter for reporting: You can find help in unexpected places, from people you wouldn’t normally have access to.
  2. But it only paid off because I’ve taken the time to build a useful local network. I’ve counted 415 Twitter users I follow in the Harrisburg area, though I suspect I follow more who I’ve neglected to add to the list. Every one of them could prove valuable in a pinch — we just never know when it’ll be.
  3. You’ll notice Twitter didn’t replace fundamental reporting, it just facilitated it. I still needed to persist and call the chairman three separate times before I got the source on the phone.

Reporters who use Twitter know that this is a pretty pedestrian example of its effectiveness. This kind of situation has become routine as I incorporate Twitter (and sometimes Facebook) into my everyday reporting. And it should also be noted that you shouldn’t see the people who follow you as potential minions…there’s just as much value in listening as there is in sourcing.

Another Twitter testimonial: The networked brainstorming session

A simple task every reporter has to deal with: Brainstorming story ideas. In this case, I needed to seek out a little-known charity or organization to feature.

Instead of sitting around and hoping a good idea popped into my head, or maybe e-mailing a source or two and crossing my fingers, I put my question out there on Twitter and Facebook.

I simply wrote: “Looking for a charity or organization in the HBG area that doesn’t often get press but could use some. Any ideas?”

The response was pretty incredible.

On Twitter, I got 13 recommendations from 12 different people.

On Facebook, I found eight more from seven people, plus a link to a directory that I didn’t know existed.

So lest you think all this Twitter nonsense is a waste of time if you’re a reporter, I just got 21 recommendations out of 19 people, most of them coming in less than an hour.

Any reporter, no matter how many times you’ve uttered the phrase “I just don’t get that stuff,” would have to love those numbers.

All it took was me typing two sentences, and the networked community took over. The implications of that for all forms of reporting are wildly exciting.

American Journalism Review writes about reporters on Twitter

Here’s a nice story by Laurie White for the American journalism Review: All the News That’s Fit to Tweet. Scroll down about halfway and you’ll see me quoted in this story about reporters who use Twitter.

Daniel Victor (@bydanielvictor), a reporter at the Harrisburg Patriot-News, says he was originally a Twitter skeptic, but is now a major fan. One of the more prolific tweeters at the ONA conference, he says he uses the service routinely to find stories.

“I use a combination of TwitterLocal and Tweetscan to find people from Harrisburg/Hershey,” he says, referring to third-party applications that allow searches of Twitter by topic and geographic location.

Victor never asks Twitter users he finds through these applications for story ideas. Instead, he finds them in their “normal conversation.”

“The key is, I don’t treat my Twitter account like I’m a reporter-bot,” he says. “I’m a full member of the community who goes to bars and tweets about the Eagles’ game just like them.”

She did a nice job with it, so there’s not too much to add. In case anyone doubts it, yes, I was very much a Twitter skeptic at first.

And though I certainly Tweeted a lot during ONA, everyone there knows Greg Linch was by far the most prolific. He easily wins the crown.

Laurie asked me if anyone has ever felt uneasy knowing they’re being followed by a reporter. I told her it’s only happened once (that I know of), and I offered to unfollow him.

I could be wrong, but I suspect no one feels uncomfortable with my presence because: A) They’re not going to Tweet about anything too scandalous anyway, and B) I’ve made clear that I’m a full participant instead of just some guy mining for stories. That’s why I made the reporter-bot comment…I am indeed a real person enjoying the community there as much as anyone else.

And these aren’t elected officials and campaigners hanging out on Twitter, these are everyday people who will occasionally lead me to interesting features. Or, for one or two of them, they’ve enjoyed having access to a reporter so they can send in a meatier story tip.

Even outside of the local users, I often find my ideas sharper once I bounce them around the global network of journalists I’ve built.

It’s great having that out-of-the-building network, both locally and globally. And for some of us, it’s even pretty fun.

Hopefully you’ll follow me if you’re not already.

Five months later, reflections on Ning

At the end of the final June meeting of the Derry Twp. school board, I told a parent that I’d see her at the next meeting.

But until then, I enthusiastically said to the Hershey Home member, she should participate a lot on the Ning network!

“Ehh…” she said, shrugging her shoulders.

I half-smiled in acknowledgment, because it was hard for me to argue she should have a different reaction. Truth is, the online network I set up for parents and residents as part of the beatblogging.org project in February just hasn’t caught on with them.

Some raw numbers:

  • Of the 36 members, only 15 have written something in the discussion forum.
  • Of the 15 members who have posted, two of them wrote 35 messages apiece. The other 13 combined for 36 messages.
  • Of those 15, eight of them responded to just one or two topics.
  • Only five members started their own discussion topic.
  • About half have taken the time to fill out minimal profiles.
  • Just six have uploaded photos of themselves for an avatar.

There are six of what I’d call the “highly committed” members. These are people who have really bought into the idea in one form or another, either uploading their own photography, inviting friends to participate, contacting each other through the site, contributing to the discussion, etc.

But even among those six, only one or two of them are really into social media. One has her own blog and Twitter account (and I recently recruited another Twitter user who hasn’t yet participated in the site).

I had very high hopes coming into the beatblogging project, and in some ways I still do. This kind of network has exciting potential as a small-town community organizer, and I don’t intend to give up on the idea.

But the failure to launch of the Hershey Home has necessitated a new strategy that involves shifting my time and effort toward a new blog — and details will be provided in an upcoming post. But for now, a brief retrospective from my beatblogging experience so far.

WHAT WORKED WELL:

  • Though the network didn’t bear much fruit in terms of immediate translation to the print product, it did help create offline relationships that were very important. Contacting these people, either by phone or by e-mail or by messaging new members, meant I was able to make personal contact with 36 potential sources I might not have otherwise. A lot of public and private messages on the forum led to productive phone calls.
  • As I detailed in an earlier post, the site’s mere presence was an advertisement for my willingness and desire to hear from residents. I called it an “Open for Business” sign.
  • Due to my insistence that members use their full, real names, the quality of conversation was usually higher than some of the noxious forums that are used otherwise. The members often expressed appreciation for that.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK WELL:

  • It hasn’t been the “Set it and forget it” reporting solution I hoped it might be. One time a big story broke, and I only had about two hours to gather community reaction. I took 20 very precious minutes to pull into the Panera Bread parking lot to use the wifi and solicit reaction on the site. I e-mailed all the members to let them know of my desire to hear from them. When I came back two hours later to see the mountain of riches that had come in, there wasn’t a single message in response. I ended up just calling one of the members.
  • In a community with very little activity on social networking sites, it was difficult to find a full buy-in to the concept.
  • The site did nothing to overcome what residents have repeatedly called a “culture of fear” when it comes to criticizing local officials. So in some of the most contentious and important issues, the ability to be anonymous elsewhere redirected traffic to those other forums.

Since this is getting a little long, I’ll split this up. Coming soon: Where the beatblogging project goes from here, and lessons to be learned for small-town journalism and networking.

Beatblogging success story: The “Open for Business” sign

I love the beatblogging project because it’s innovation in real newsroom laboratories, as opposed to tsk-tsking and dreaming.

My foray into it has had its ups and downs, but I recently had a kind of success story that I didn’t expect when I signed up.

And it shows why I believe so much that social networking can revolutionize small-town beat reporting.

A woman in the town I cover believed that she had spotted an injustice. (I won’t go into detail for competitive reasons, and because my work on the possible story is ongoing.)

But she didn’t know what to do with this knowledge, so like any other computer user, she turned to Google. She typed in the name of a resident in town who her neighbors had recommended, a person who might know what to do with this information.

One of the first results took her to The Hershey Home, the Ning network I set up for the beatblogging project. The resident she sought has been a frequent contributor to the network.

Once there, she strolled around the site. She read all of my solicitations for story ideas, background information on stories I was already working on, and feedback for stories I’ve already written. She went ahead and e-mailed me to set up a meeting.

After she spilled the beans at our meeting, I asked her why she contacted me.

“I just read through your comments on the site, and you seemed like the type of person who would want to hear this,” she responded.

Imagine that! I may have stumbled upon a high-impact story based on a tip from a person who isn’t even a member of the network. She chose to contact a reporter because the network put up an “Open for Business” sign,  and revealed that I have a genuine interest in hearing from as many residents as possible.

An obligatory listing of our e-mail address at the end of our stories doesn’t invite our readers to contact us, it just allows them to. Setting up this kind of network, interacting with people online, and really advertising that we really, really do want to hear from people can directly lead to stories.

The newspaper site as community connector

Newspapers have a tremendous opportunity to re-brand themselves as the center of the online community, connecting people to each other in every way possible.

But that window is so enormously small, I fear very few papers will take advantage. It’ll be a fatal blow, and we’ll be kicking ourselves that there weren’t more entrepreneurs inside the industry at this ripe time.

The newspaper site could be the home to all of the forums, the blogs, the social networking, the matchmaking, the businesses, the schools, and the community organization. Right now that’s all fragmented across the Web, and frankly a bit overwhelming for people who don’t constantly consume that kind of media.

Imagine if that were all concentrated in one hyper-local place? A place that has an already-strong brand name in place, a name that’s been a core part of the community since the 19th century?

Sounds pretty ideal to me. Giving people a voice has always been a fundamental mission of newspapers, and the letters page no longer cuts it.

But that role needs to be expanded to connecting people online, and right now a lot of other people are figuring that out much quicker. Someone in Harrisburg could:

  • Read local bloggers, discover local Twitter users or use the forums at blogHarrisburg
  • Find events at Spotobe
  • Find other college students at Facebook or MySpace
  • Try to determine which of the billion dating sites has lured the most potential dates

And Harrisburg area college students might soon have their own local network, if this entry at Ideablob gains any momentum.

All of this is happening outside of the newspaper site. Some of it is happening at newspaper sites, too, but the local entrepreneurs have figured out better ways to do it.

It all could have been centered at the newspaper site if the newspaper site thought of it first. Time to think of something first…and I’ll offer some of my ideas in a post soon.