Small-Town Publisher Discovers Twitter’s Value in Covering California Earthquake

Caroline Titus, publisher and editor of The Ferndale Enterprise in northern California, publishes nothing online from her weekly newspaper and says she doesn’t need a social media strategy to serve the town of 800 households. So how did she end up relying on Twitter to cover the California earthquake earlier this month? Titus explains in the edited e-mail interview below.

Julie Moos: Where were you when the earthquake struck? How did you decide to use Twitter for coverage, then how did you coordinate coverage?

Caroline Titus: I had just returned home from covering a high school basketball game. Immediately after the quake struck, I checked on an elderly neighbor and the location and status of my two children. Once I confirmed they were OK, I headed “uptown” and began chronicling the damage and gathering quotes — the usual MO for every disaster, fire call, etc., in our small town.

After about 45 minutes of gathering, it dawned on me for the first time in my 27 years as a journalist, what do I do now? While I’ve always done phone interviews with major news outlets from out of the area during floods, earthquakes, wildfires, it wasn’t until I called my 20-year-old daughter that I kicked into gear.

She is a managing editor of news for The Stanford Daily (she’s a junior at Stanford University) and she quickly instructed me to begin “tweeting.” I’ll be honest, up until then I thought Twitter was for twits.

I established an account a few months back, upon my daughter’s urging. I challenged her about the effectiveness of it by showing her that I could even offer up four free movie tickets and no one would call.

I basically used Twitter to preview my stories in the upcoming weekly edition of The Enterprise and considered it just “one more task” I had to do before putting the paper to bed. (I was hesitant to tweet all my story previews after a larger competitor almost managed to pick up on one of my exclusives.)

As far as coordinating coverage, I’m a one-woman news operation. Take photos, gather information and hit upload.

What do you know about locals who follow you on Twitter? If few locals are following you on Twitter, what is the goal of your social media strategy?

Titus: I only had 11 followers on Twitter prior to the earthquake. [Now, she has 209.] I’ve been running in-house ads urging readers to follow us, but … I don’t have a social media strategy. I don’t feel I need one.

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Your Web site says you have “almost 100 percent penetration” in your town. How many advertisers does your paper have? How wide (in miles) is the circulation area?

Titus: How many advertisers? Boy, haven’t counted recently. Maybe 100 regulars? Most of our advertisers have been with us for a very long time. They are committed to what we do and realize the impact our paper has in the limited area we serve. I am very thankful to our faithful advertisers. They are the reason we are entering our 132nd year. While the town of Ferndale is just one square mile, our coverage area extends into the “countryside” surrounding Ferndale — the Eel River Valley. We also have many subscribers from out of the area that have connections to Ferndale and still enjoy keeping up with their hometown news.

Last summer, you explained to California Publisher why you keep news content offline. Is that still accurate?

Titus: As far as keeping my content offline, I have always felt that it was far too valuable to give away for free. I work extremely hard to report on my corner of the world and consistently, every week, come up with exclusive stories that are not reported on by our competitors. Our advertisers aren’t eager about advertising online. Now, that’s not to say that I won’t consider putting “teaser” paragraphs online at a future date with a link to our subscription page.

Some of our out-of-state subscribers have said they would pay for an e-edition but would still like the hard copy to arrive in the mail. As I said in that profile piece, our readers still want to hold the newspaper in their hands — to line the birdcage with or clip and save in the grandkids’ scrapbook. Eventually, there won’t be a “hard copy” of The Enterprise, but I hope that day is many years away.

We first learned of Titus’ Twitter coverage through Lost Remote, which also spoke with her about the decision to use Twitter and what made it the “perfect middleman” in this situation.

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