How our university newspaper used social media to find news and break it

Student Newspaper Survival Guide A while back, Rachele Kanigel asked me to contribute to her textbook The Student Newspaper Survival Guide. She asked me how we at the Spartan Daily, San Jose State’s college newspaper, used social media to:

  • find story ideas
  • report stories
  • build a relationship with readers
  • promote stories or the newspaper and website itself.

Her textbook is geared toward student journalists who want to know everything there is to know about the student newspaper process.

So this is what I told her, and I’m sharing it with you now:

Finding news stories on Twitter

We used a site called Hootsuite.com to manage our Twitter and Facebook accounts. It does a million things we like: It lets several people co-manage accounts without having to sacrifice password security, we can schedule tweets and Facebook posts into the future, and we can set up searches and friends lists to easily sift through all the noise. There’s also analytics built in, which is a nice add.

We have a search set up in Hootsuite for anyone on Twitter who mentions SJSU. (You can also just use search.twitter.com.) That has proved invaluable in a handful of cases. We can be alerted to news stories posted by the mainstream media the second they appear, and we can take action.

We can also get specific leads for stories that no one else really sees. For example, I found one Twitterer in my SJSU search who mentioned a blind classmate in an orchestra class. I messaged her and got more details: Apparently the Braille technician on campus had moved on to another job, and the blind student wasn’t able to have the sheet music printed in Braille, so the orchestra had to be limited to pieces that were already available in Braille. It was an interesting story I don’t think I would have found any other way.

Using social media for reporting

Social media was extremely helpful for one of our biggest stories of the semester, but our big breaks in the process came from old-fashioned reporting.

Last March, a man named John Patrick Bedell brought a gun into the Pentagon and opened fire. No one at the Pentagon was seriously hurt, but the man was shot and killed in retaliation. We had heard he was a former SJSU student, so we worked all night to verify that fact.

Bedell was quite tech-savvy and had accounts on LinkedIn, Wikipedia and Amazon that mentioned SJSU and revealed more pieces of his character. We used that in our stories, but we didn’t have definitive verification until the school’s media relations officer came through. She had access to a student database we didn’t have, and she provided the student photo that matched the photo the FBI released.

We also wanted to find a student who knew the shooter, so we scoured Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and web bulletin boards. We came very close to finding students who would speak to the media, but they never came through. We used our newsroom Google group to e-mail the entire news staff, and it turned out that a friend of an editor knew someone who had a class with him. We eventually nailed the story.

My takeaway was this: You get better sources and better information with established connections. It’s tough to make cold calls, and they come through sometimes. It’s also tough to make cold connections on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. We got the best results when we had pre-existing relationships with sources, or friends of sources. There’s an established trust, and that reinforces the need for journalists to make online connections through social media before those connections are needed. Start following Twitterers in the area, or be active on Facebook fan pages and other bulletin boards.

Building a relationship with readers

On our newspaper’s Facebook fan page, we made sure we asked questions of readers, at least one every day, about the issues of the day. We tried some different things with that. For example, if two columnists write opposing views on one subject, we asked the Facebook fans to “like” the article they agreed with the most.

Because of abuse and lack of moderation options, we had to shut down the ability for fans to post on our wall. At the time Facebook had no way for us to moderate wall comments. But our workaround was having an “Open-topic Friday” every Friday where people could post their rants, raves, events and news items in one thread. It’s actually a good idea to have those kinds of posts occasionally anyway, because some people won’t contribute to the community unless there’s a reason.

Another idea: Create a graphic of a scale of 1 to 10, and ask Facebook fans to tag themselves on the photo that best reflected their viewpoint. For example, if they were for tighter gun control, they would tag themselves near the 1, and if they were against, they’d place their tag near the 10. That way, their friends are notified that they are tagged in this photo, and they are automatically subscribed to the comment thread. It’s another way to make an issue of the day go viral.

Promoting stories

We actually slow-released our headlines on Twitter every fifteen minutes in the morning. It avoids the RSS dump most news feeds have when a site goes live. We used to post every story to the Facebook page but we wanted to avoid overload, so we picked a good representative of stories and released them throughout the day via Hootsuite. We’d post our three top headlines at 7 a.m., a discussion-generating question at 10 a.m., an opinion column at noon, a feature or entertainment story at 3 p.m. and a multimedia piece at 6 p.m.

[Note: Since I originally wrote this about a month ago, Facebook has revealed that 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. are the best times for reader engagement, according to a presentation the company gave at a Hacks/Hackers meetup. For more, read Poynter's article on the subject. There's also an interesting spike of activity after midnight, they said, something that I found true when I had to post something late and got surprisingly immediate comments. Then again, this is a college newspaper, and college students are notorious night owls. I would take advantage of that.]

If I had more time as the online editor, I would have submitted our stories to StumbleUpon, Digg, Reddit and Delicious, with the proper tags attached. I’ve found StumbleUpon to be one of the top referral sources to my own website, and research shows that to be true on a wider scale. So don’t make the mistake I made, and find time to promote your site beyond Facebook and Twitter.

So what practices have you found that work for you? Do you have any specific examples?

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