S.F. Chronicle social ‘boot camp’ changing culture, practices

The 148-year-old San Francisco Chronicle has invested in an off-site incubator for its journalists to learn about and experiment with a variety of digital tools, including social media. PBS Media Shift explored goals of the “boot camp” in January.

Now that the effort is underway, I reached out to Marcus Gilmer, newsroom social media manager at the Chronicle and Sfgate.com. (He and I worked together at the Chicago Sun-Times last year.) Gilmer joined the Chronicle in December and has spent time at the incubator teaching social media skills and tools to reporters and editors. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

What kind of areas of improvement did you diagnose when you first arrived there? Were there any specific problems with what the staff was doing with social media that you wanted to address right away?

Gilmer: You have a different barrier of adoption at various newsrooms. Here at the Chronicle, adoption seemed to be fairly good, it was just getting people inspired to use it, and showing them how they can use it in different ways. There was a person in this position who preceded me who juggled all different kinds of duties, but now with both myself and a second person here to handle community management duties and social in the newsroom, it’s easier for me to focus on training.

It’s really about engagement, reaching out to people who are voices of our paper, making sure they’re engaging on social — especially Twitter — and using it not only to promote their stories but to engage with readers, and push forward the message of the paper.

Everyone I’ve worked with so far has been really open to it. It’s just a matter of sitting them down and going through what their routine is and working with them on a strategy to increase their usage and show them ways that they can do it when they’re already on a stretched timeline. Every reporter has deadlines. Every newsroom is dealing with much more limited resources than they had in the past. It’s figuring out how we can weave this element into their day.

You’re talking about two different hurdles. One, you have to get people to recognize the importance of social media and how it will make their work better. And then you have to show them how to actually be effective on it. It sounds like you’re saying the buy-in hurdle was mostly cleared, and now you’re focused on the nitty gritty how-to.

Gilmer: There’s going to be that buy-in hurdle in every newsroom. There’s always going to be some holdouts, but it was much lower here than I’ve experienced in the past.

Part of buy-in is engagement. It’s less about people who just don’t have a Twitter account and more about getting them to buy in to increased usage and showing them ways they can increase their followers, that it’s not about pushing out nothing but links. That adoption hurdle is two-pronged. Just having a Twitter account is the first one, then getting them to use it is second. The first hurdle was definitely much lower.

Why do you think buy-in is better there? Is it the fact that you’re in the Bay Area? Is it things past staff members have done?

Gilmer: I think it’s a combination. Being here in the bay, Twitter’s right down the street, literally, and several other big tech companies. And I’m sure there was a good push by previous employees.

When we were at the Sun-Times, sometimes I was surprised by how quickly some reporters and editors came around to using social. It wasn’t always who you would expect, and I think that went for the holdouts, too. People sometimes say older staffers who haven’t grown up with social take longer to come around, or there may be specific segments of the newsroom that are better at it. What’s your perspective?

Gilmer: I think the perception that it’s not always a generation gap has proven true. There are folks here who have had a longer career in the newsroom who have taken to it just as much as the others.

When I came on, immediately I could see that the sports writers here were very fluent, the way they discuss things with followers and share observations that go beyond just what appears in our digital publications and in print. Part of it is them being there in the press box, seeing what everyone else is doing. Twitter is just an extension of sports talk radio in a way.

There’s a relationship between engagement level and followers. They follow you because — whether they agree or disagree — you’re offering bits of information and thoughts that go beyond just links to stories.

And then it varies throughout the newsroom. There’s definitely a crop of younger reporters here who are very fluent in it. There’s a great team of breaking news reporters that are very good. The Google bus protest is a good example of that.

 

We’ve been talking a lot about Twitter. I know we journalists get stuck on that a lot. What about other social tools?

Gilmer: We’re getting there. One of the main things is identifying where each topic can flourish with each social channel. From a larger brand perspective, Facebook is definitely a concern. From a smaller topic-oriented concern it’s not as much of a focus.

We’re looking into Pinterest, because we have such a healthy, wonderful food and wine section that’s renowned for its coverage. Same with style. That’s where my counterpart, community manager Kathleen Ngo, has really made strides.

We have a fantastic photo staff we’re working with on our Instagram account, making sure that not only there but on Facebook and Twitter we use their assets, these wonderful photos — like from the fire that just happened in the Mission Bay area on Tuesday — that we’re using these photos in a way that’s fair to the quality of the photos.

 

Tell me about your role working with reporters in the incubator.

Gilmer: It’s still evolving, and it may change. Our managing editor, Audrey Cooper, has been very open about it evolving as it needs to. It’s a chance to be more focused with training. Some things I’m going to be doing throughout the newsroom anyway, but it gives me a chance to drill down a little bit more in a more intimate setting and answer specific questions that may apply to the stuff they’re doing in the incubator right now.

Depending on the topic, I’ll have a presentation, but I also make sure these are flexible. I can get feedback from them and questions from them. There’s a couple times I’ve gone over there just to work one-on-one with some people, or do some question-and-answer. It’s a smaller group, and so you have varying degrees of education level on these tools. Some people, it would all be redundant for them. Some people need a little extra coaching.

Are there any more specific things you’re trying to hammer home? Any specify tools or broader notions you’re trying to get across?

Gilmer: I’m trying to focus on engagement and tools that they can use that are easy to use in a digital space, that are easy for them to use that are still of quality. Storify’s a good example: Once you get a hang of it, it’s easy to use, but it can really be utilized in a variety of different ways.

Further down the line, there may be differences when other sections are in the incubator. It may be talking about specific strategies that we can use for each section. Maybe there’s some very sports-specific strategies, like how to engage on Twitter using Q&As.

This first round has been more about general best practices and getting everyone on the same page with ways that they can use social to make their jobs a little bit easier — not so much finding ways to squeeze it in, but making it a very valuable part of their day-to-day reportage.

Talk more about how you’ve approached teaching social media to people with so many different backgrounds. Does it get to a point where one-on-one really is the best way to do it?

Gilmer: I think one-on-one’s helpful, because people are at different levels. It’s immediately easy to gauge where they’re at just by looking at their Twitter feed, just by talking to them, and you’re able to narrow down very specific issues and challenges with them, depending on beat.

For wider teachings, you have to start from a certain level. There’s going to be stuff that’s not remedial by any means, but stuff that people already know how to do, and I think it’s important still to do that even if it’s redundant. I don’t think there’s any downside to going over it again. You just have to tailor whatever presentation you’re making so you’re not speaking too far above people who may not have as much experience with social and so you’re not dumbing it down too much for people who are already very experienced.

All these reporters have different routines, based on deadlines, based on subjects, based on schedules. It’s really interesting for me to hear their issues one-on-one because you do start to see patterns of things that can be disseminated at a larger level to the group as a whole.

It sounds like a cool luxury to be at a newspaper where you can have these kinds of conversations in an atmosphere of learning.

Gilmer: It’s pretty encouraging. I think it’s going to yield really good results. I fully expect there to be some resistance, because there’s always going to be resistance when you’re trying to change the culture. I’m trying to do it as smoothly as possible, to approach it from more of a strategy perspective than trying to shoehorn it in as something they have to find time to do. It’s a lot of figuring out how they can use this tool to be useful to their everyday, day-to-day, hour-to-hour reporting, as opposed to something they have to find time to do.

Once you do that, you see them being much more receptive. They see how it can help them in terms of not only promoting themselves, but also in getting information out there, interacting with readers, story sourcing.

Part of it’s being here, surrounding by that entrepreneurial spirit, that I think just by osmosis you’re going to want to know. You’re always reading about these startups and all kinds of weird different tools and apps that are being developed.

What’s the end goal with this? How do you hope to be able to evaluate how this works in the end?

Gilmer: I don’t think there are any concrete, quantitative goals for them to reach. Obviously we want follower count to grow because follower count leads to more interaction and better exposure for them, and better perception for individual reporters and the brand at large.

There’s really no end game, because this is always evolving. My ongoing goal is to keep raising the level of education in the newsroom, first on Twitter and then on other tools, and to keep pace so that we’re a leader in the realm of media in terms of usage, experimentation, digital adoption, and figuring out ways to tell our stories and disseminate the important news that we cover.

We want to be willing to try things that may not work out but to do it in a way that’s smart, that enables us to learn and that enables us to figure out other ways that we can use these tools. There’s Storify, ScribbleLive, all this stuff — God knows what the next thing is going to be, and we want to be at a point where our newsroom is flexible and able to adapt on the fly to these kind of tools.

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