How Philly.com's Erica Palan trains her coworkers to think about social
Part of what I hope to do in this weekly column is highlight fresh ideas and insights from journalists working outside of New York, Washington D.C., and San Francisco. No offense to those three places – I live in one of them – but they get a lot of attention from people who write about the media. I’d like to focus on creative things people are doing elsewhere, because there are people all across the country who are working on really creative, innovative ideas in their own newsrooms that might be helpful for other newsrooms to know about.
One of those people is Erica Palan, who is currently creating social media strategies in the newsrooms of Philly.com, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. (All three publications share the same space.)
I wanted to talk to Erica because she’s not only defining how her publications talk about their content online, but because she has undertaken a concerted effort to train up her coworkers in all sorts of digital skills. Recently, she co-hosted a workshop on “How to Get Your Story Read,” where she talked about how to create and share stories once they’ve been published. She also maintains an open-door policy for her colleagues to ask questions and recommend other workshops that might benefit the entire staff.
What I like about Erica’s approach is that it was simple to set up, simple to implement and accommodating to the varying schedules in her newsroom. (She ran two workshops and plans to travel to the Inquirer’s bureaus in the future for more hands-on training.)
I also wanted to talk to Erica because she manages social media for three publications with three distinctly different audiences. That seems hard to juggle, and I wanted to find out how she does it so well.
MK: One of the things I admire most about you is your ability to handle social duties for multiple publications with different audiences. How do you differentiate tone and content for philly.com, the Inquirer and the Daily News? Is there a difference?
EP: All three newsrooms have a few things in common when it comes to voice, whether its on social or in website copy or on the cover of a newspaper. They’re all timely, critical and savvy. The Daily News certainly has the freedom to be a bit cheekier than the Inquirer on many issues and like the rest of the internet, Philly.com can sometimes be more playful.
MK: Do you use any tools to make your life easier? How do you manage your Tweetdeck?
EP: Personally, I like Hootsuite more than Tweetdeck. I am just more comfortable with it. I am also a firm believer that Twitter Lists are the most underrated feature on Twitter.com. I use them for everything from keeping up on local news to staying in touch with my neighbors.
At Philly.com, we use a social media CMS called Sprout Social. I used a bunch of different social CMSes when I did some social media account management for an agency last year, and I truly believe that Sprout is the best and most user-friendly one out there right now. We’re in the process of folding some Inquirer and Daily News assets into Sprout now. I’m looking forward to getting organized in that respect.
This isn’t specific to social media, but I would be utterly lost—in both my personal and professional lives—without Google Drive and in particular, Google Forms. I also love Slack, which we use with the Philly.com team to communicate about site issues and important office announcements like which newsroom has free food.
MK: How do you keep track of breaking news? How do you share if you've learned something with the rest of your staff?
EP: We have a unified breaking news desk between the three newsrooms. That team works together really well and is able to get news out quickly and accurately. In terms of social media, we rely heavily on the accounts of reporters who are out on the scene of an event. Whether it was local Ferguson protests or election night or a major shooting in the suburbs, our reporters are our best and most reliable source of info and their tweets are incredibly valuable. Sometimes we’ll pull them into a stream on our site, but we may just RT them from our branded accounts, depending on what’s happening. For things that have a big regional impact, we’ll organize the newsrooms around a hashtag—like #FergusonPHL or #MontcoShooting.
In terms of sharing tools with folks in the newsrooms, I’m honestly still figuring out the best way to do this. I’m one of a few new digital staffers and training is a high priority. I try not to clog up people’s inboxes but sometimes the best and easiest way to share info is to just send a quick email out to the staff. We have an internal Knowledge Base that I’m not honestly sure if people look at very often. Figuring out how to drive people to that is on a to-do list!
One thing that worked recently was a big presentation that was open to the entire staff and held twice in one day to accommodate different newsroom schedules. A few weeks ago, Diana Lind, our new director of digital audience development, and I hosted a workshop on “How to Get Your Story Read.” We covered things like creating shareable content, an overview of what’s been successful on our site and others and how to effectively share a story once its been published. We were thrilled with how well attended it was! In addition to a PowerPoint, we also had an easel with a big notepad where we could write suggestions for future training events and other ideas or issues that came up. Afterward, we sent out the slides we used to the entire staff for anyone who couldn’t attend in person or wanted to review. The plan is to do these kinds of workshops pretty regularly and to take the show on the road to the Jersey and suburban bureaus. Up next: How to Write Good Web Headlines.
Along the same lines, I also hold “office hours” twice a week. That’s not to say that people can’t reach out to me at other times—but it means I won’t schedule any meetings during those hours so people can swing by and ask questions or talk about an upcoming story or just say hi.
MK: What is a typical day like for you? What's your workflow like?
EP: Ha! Literally no two days are the same for me — but I’m sure most people who work in the news business can say that. I’m my most productive in the morning so I try to get in around 8 a.m. when the newsroom is really quiet and I can bang out emails and look at the previous day’s traffic and maybe work on writing memos or building presentations. If it’s a slow day, I might get to do that until noon or so. The afternoons tend to be full of meetings or planning sessions. Unless there’s a big issue, I like to leave around 5:30 so that I can have dinner at home with my fiancé or go to the gym. I usually check my email a few times throughout the evening.
MK: You've worked at many publications in Philadelphia and I admire you for building your career there. What advice would you give to people who want to stay in a market outside of DC/NY/SF?
EP: I’ve joked that I’ve worked with, interviewed for a job with or had a drink with every single journalist in Philadelphia. That’s not entirely true, but it’s not that far off, either.
My advice is super-simple: Just be nice.
Philadelphia is a small media ecosystem—even though it feels like there is a new start-up launching every other day lately — and it’s likely that people you work with when you’re young will wind up being colleagues again in the future. I hate the word “networking,” because it sounds disingenuous or shallow, but I do think that making contacts and being a kind, genuine, helpful person will go a long way when it comes to getting hired or having someone give you a good reference.
MK: How do you get your own news?
EP: I’m a big social media nerd, so I do get a ton of news from Twitter and Facebook, especially national and world news. Being in local newsrooms, I feel pretty connected to what’s happening in the region. I also am constantly circulating through the homepages of a handful of local sites.
MK: What three Tweeters should the world know about?
EP: I love Philly comedian Chip Chantry and his Twitter feed cracks me up: @ChipChantry
I’m a proud Temple University grad and I think their student newspaper has been getting better and better every semester, so @TheTempleNews deserves a shout-out.
And I’m a HUGE Springsteen fan, so @blogness, the Twitter account associated with fansite Blogness on the Edge of Town, is a must-follow for me.
Editor's note: After this piece ran on Tuesday, some readers asked Palan for her presentation on how to get your story read. Here it is.