Photo by Shadi Rahimi, AJ+
Photo by Shadi Rahimi, AJ+

Four months after Michael Brown was killed, activist Deray Mckesson tweeted: “We exist in a tradition of erased histories. Twitter has helped us tell our own story. We are sitting in history and making it. #Ferguson.”

Watching from afar as Ferguson first erupted in protests, I messaged on Facebook with a friend overseas regarding how similar the imagery looked to what we had witnessed during the Arab Spring. The words being used by critics and some media to describe protestors also echoed those we'd heard in Egypt; “thugs” and “violent,” and the police response was just as forceful, though less deadly. A split screen meme went viral, depicting mirroring poses struck by two young men, one in Ferguson and one in Palestine, their lunging bodies tossing back sizzling tear gas canisters.

Citizen reporting on Ferguson also followed parallel patterns: Activists were scooping the media on Twitter, photos and raw video were being tweeted in rapid succession to tell a full story on timelines, and spokespeople for a movement were emerging not only due to their efficacy on the ground, but also their social media savvy and appeal.

I arrived in Ferguson two months later with fellow AJ+ producer Brooke Minters to cover the events of #FergusonOctober using only mobile phones. Traveling with us were our colleagues Hunter Holcombe and Imran Garda, who would be working on a short documentary. This would be the first time since our launch earlier that year that a team from our San Francisco office would be parachuting into a location.

And, it would be the start of a practice we have now incorporated effectively into our workflow: Using Twitter as a breaking news platform.

Parachuting into a story

I moved to Egypt in 2011 to report on the revolution. Having done so on a shoestring freelance budget, I admit that I would eye with envy the staff journalists with pricey equipment who were parachuted in when violent protests would erupt. I remember meeting one in Tahrir Square who breezily described her stay: A ritzy hotel and a hefty per diem bonus just for “reporting in a conflict zone.” Others would toss handfuls of cash at fixers.

Some Egyptian and foreign reporters living in Cairo (myself included) would grumble about such parachuters, mostly when they got a story wrong. Such missteps were dangerous for us all. But at the same time, fresh eyes did sometimes make for whimsical stories about things you may overlook to pitch when living in a place, after novelty becomes the new “normal.”

When it came time to parachute into Ferguson, part of my personal preparation included thinking about how we may appear to local residents and journalists. I think it’s important to recognize and navigate such perceptions. Those based in the region were reporting on their turf – they knew the players and understood detailed intricacies that we didn’t.

At that time, our audience was predominantly international (a carry-over Al Jazeera audience), though our target was American millennials. So we had dueling interests: Report in a way that sheds light and adds to the social conversation, cultivate an American audience, and translate the events for an overseas audience. I began reaching out to organizers who I knew had flown to Ferguson to help train protestors, and I reached out to locals and St. Louis-based journalists on Twitter, admitting my unfamiliarity.

I learned a few things that sparked my interest: Young women were emerging as leaders of the protests; activist groups were forming on the spot and members were getting on-the-ground training between marches and rallies; activists from around the country were setting up shop in support, some even living in local hotels for months at a time. We decided that our focus would be narrow – find several young locals to embed with whose personal stories would help narrate the chaotic events.

During our three trips there we produced videos ranging from daily pieces strung together from the breaking mobile clips we tweeted in real time (like this, this, and this), to a short documentary featuring two young women leading street protests. We also featured lawyers, artists, live streamers, organizers, and even gun salesmen – all filmed on mobile phones. And we highlighted the connection between Palestinian and Ferguson protestors.

By producing fast feature shorts along with breaking news clips we were able to give context to our audience to the nameless faces and fists they were seeing on primetime TV. It was also a strategic editorial decision to buck TV-style narration or presenters for our mobile phone pieces. It was more true to the nature of the mobile format, and the social media platform, for people to speak for themselves, raw and unedited.

Some of the social media lessons we learned during our first parachute:

1) Be selective on Facebook: We observed that posting more than one raw video daily and/or more than two videos about one storyline can alienate a diverse audience. Select only the best content to share. It’s all about timing, the post language, and the first few seconds of video.

2) Tweet to your heart’s content! But along with the nuts and bolts of a story, we found the most pay-off by focusing on capturing the delightful, outrageous and unexpected moments, i.e. “shareable.” Tweet wording is everything. Be careful about hashtag usage (here’s why).

3) Live stream only when it’s worth it: In our experience, live streaming can be hit or miss. Low data rates can make it very spotty, frustrating the audience. I suggest only using when you’re confident it will be of better service to your audience than capturing video clips.

Using Twitter as a breaking news platform

Parachuting into Ferguson presented us with the opportunity to test using our Twitter feed as a breaking news platform. We did this in a manner best described as a “timeline takeover.” During the 12 hours or so that we were in the streets reporting, our feed was dominated by all things #Ferguson.

It’s to our benefit that we have a start-up culture that allows us such experimentation. It was also the first time we used mobile phones to report directly to Twitter, a method I describe in detail in a previous column.

Before Ferguson our newsroom had operated predominantly as a news aggregator, which was the mandate during our incubation period. We tweeted out highly produced content and received back little engagement. After, a few of us took it upon ourselves to transform our Twitter feed. We live-tweeted televised pressers and shared raw video after verification.

Our audience engagement jumped. By the time Baltimore erupted, we had perfected our process for reporting breaking news on Twitter, and were deeply invested in #BlackLivesMatter as an office-wide beat.

Some of the lessons we've learned from using Twitter to break news:

1) Be of service: When first getting into social media I read this Guy Kawasaki book. He advised promoting yourself less than 10 percent of the time. So true. We've seen better results by providing a service to our followers rather than expecting them react only to what we’re pushing.

2) Be consistent: Don’t live tweet once and never again. Cultivate and keep your audience by being a reliable source. By now our audience knows to tune into our feed if there's a high-profile presser or dramatic event.

3) Be experimental: We’ve tried things that have bombed, learned, and moved on. Whenever someone has a creative idea for a tweet, we try it out. Twitter is a forgiving space because it’s fast moving. Play with it.

As the story continues...

On the one-year anniversary we reported on Ferguson from afar. The benefit of having parachuted in is pretty clear: We’d established trusted sources on the ground and deepened our understanding.

On Twitter, our organic audience growth and now frequent tweeting (around 70 tweets on average daily, about half of which is of a breaking nature) has resulted in ballooning engagement. This time last year we'd celebrate if we got a dozen retweets. Now we do when we get hundreds.

Most importantly we've cultivated an active audience dedicated to our coverage of Ferguson and related stories. We're always asking ourselves how best to report these stories and be of service to our audience.

I recently spoke on a panel on social justice and journalism, where print and radio journalists expressed in conversation beforehand a lack of knowledge about their periphery audience. For us, having a social media focus means reaping the benefits of immediate audience feedback and measurables.

If to be in journalism is to be of service, which I believe it is, then social media allows us to do just that.