Tweet by Tweet: How Social Journalists Tell Stories and Build Brands

 In Events, Featured, Social Journalism, Tow Knight News

At most panels on journalism, a reporter’s announcement that her news organization was launching a website would be met with enthusiasm.

But when P. Kim Bui said her team at plans to launch its own site soon, after several months of telling its stories largely on Twitter and other social platforms, fellow panelist Michael Rusch was skeptical.

“I think it’s great that you don’t [have one],” Rusch, social news editor at Buzzfeed, said at “Your Journalism, Your Brand: How to Build an Effective Social Profile” on Tuesday, April 28.

The pushback reflected the success that the panelists — Rusch, Bui, ProPublica Senior Reporter Charles Ornstein, and Mashable Real-time News Editor Brian Ries — have had reporting and engaging readers on a variety of social networks. At the Tow-Knight Center event, they discussed that success and offered advice for the audience of about 70 on how to tell stories and build effective social brands.

Ornstein, who writes about health care, recalled the night of October 29, 2012, when he used Twitter to issue and collect news about Hurricane Sandy while sitting in his unlit New York apartment. The following morning, he composed a piece on Storify with his tweets, and then wrote a related article for ProPublica.

Finding and tweeting examples of strong health care coverage helps him construct a social profile that audiences recognize, and comprises part of his daily routine.

“It takes at least an hour every morning, but that’s really useful,” he said.

Ries cited the tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011 as his initiation into curating news on social media. Now, Mashable uses Geofeedia to find all the status updates, tweets, and other content that users generate near a particular place, such as the CVS pharmacy in Baltimore that burned amidst the protests of the death of Freddie Gray.

From there, Ries tries to identify users who may have more to share.

“[We] reach out to them, find sources for stories,” he said.

As for using social media to build a brand, Ries advised the audience of students, journalists, and nonprofit professionals to “treat every tweet like a mini-performance,” and accept the inevitable stumbles on stage.

“If you live your life in public, you’re going to make mistakes,” he said. “Own it.”

Rusch started his media career by living in public—in a tent in Louisiana, where he could commute to press conferences related to BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Live tweeting as @weeddude, Rusch said he “took social as its own storytelling tool,” and went on to cover, also via Twitter, the riots in London in August 2011, this time from a squat in Portland, Ore.

Wearing a thick, protrudent beard, Rusch recalled presenting his unvarnished self when he joined Twitter in 2008, as a thirty-something uncertain how to find employment in journalism.

“If I was going to start from zero, I should be a little bit honest about who I am,” he said.

At Buzzfeed, Rusch said he wants to hire “social news reporters….people who are pretty much only going to tell stories that live on social media.”

The idea that stories can exist solely on social media came up toward the middle of the discussion. Rusch said that Twitter users with thousands of followers might receive, at best, several hundred clicks on links to articles they share, indicating that some followers may prefer to consume content on the platform.

“If [followers]…are not interested in going somewhere else, maybe we should stop sending them there,” he said.

As Bui described it, puts Rusch’s conclusion into practice. Thus far, the news source exists on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and its journalists only report on content already on those platforms. To compose a story on Twitter, Bui said, she’ll start a thread on a current topic and just start replying to herself.

Speaking via Skype, she said that reporting on social media gives her “a much wider array of places to look for sources for a story,” but that it can’t replace reporting in a particular spot.

“I’m not in Baltimore this week, and Buzzfeed is definitely kicking my ass,” she said.

But Bui cited Buzzfeed reporter Ellie Hall’s analyses of the Twitter accounts of alleged members of ISIS as evidence that social reporting can complement place-based work.

The CUNY J-School’s Master of Arts in Social Journalism program teaches students how to serve audience communities by using data, social media, and traditional storytelling. Program director Carrie Brown, who moderated Tuesday’s event, asked panelists how they felt about publishing content on platforms their news organizations don’t own.

Not a problem, Ries opined.

“As long as it’s good content you believe in, [and] you can somehow have proof that you’ve done it, I think that’s all that matters,” he said. “You can kind of take that anywhere.”

“The way I look at it,” Bui said, “my reporter’s notebook is now on Twitter.”

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