How a small Arkansas TV station uses Facebook, Twitter to drive audience to newscasts, website

KAIT-TV in Jonesboro, Ark., is a small station with a large social media presence.

The station, which is in the 180th television market (out of 210) in a metro area with a population somewhere around 150,000, has found ways to gain about the same number of fans and followers as some of the country's top newspapers.

The station had 19,447 Facebook fans and 2,828 Twitter followers the last I checked. By comparison, a new Bivings Group study found that the top 100 newspapers (by circulation) have an average of 21,214 Facebook fans.

KAIT News Director Hatton Weeks told me by phone what the station has done to attract such a large audience on Facebook and Twitter.

In the spring of 2009, Weeks went to a fellow Raycom station in Memphis and met with the station's "Internet guru," who introduced him to social media. He came home, began his own blog, set up station Facebook and Twitter accounts,  and introduced them to the newsroom.

"Early on, it was mostly RSS driven, and we realized we had to be a lot more interactive," Weeks said. "You've got to be conversational, and it's got to be participatory, or it won't work."

It took some trial and error. But now the morning show, which airs from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., is the most regular user of Facebook. Monday through Friday, a "Hot Topic" related to the news of the day is posted by one of the anchors at 4:30 a.m. for people to comment on. Weeks says it's rare to have less than 50 comments by 7. During the show, the anchors talk on the air about the question and user responses.

Here are some examples of the morning show's recent Facebook posts:

  • Do you believe the new health care law is unconstitutional? (97 comments)
  • Do you think young people are adversely affected by sexy teens on TV? (50 comments)
  • Do you believe McDonald's uses deceptive advertising practices for Happy Meals? (96 comments)
  • Should states allow public school students to opt out of physical education class?  (63 comments)

Weeks has four suggestions for news organizations that want to improve their social media presence.

1. Get everyone involved. Use the expertise in the room. Almost everyone in the 40-person KAIT newsroom has taken on a role in publishing online or on social media, from Weeks himself to part-time studio camera operators. Producers, weather staff and newsroom managers are the most consistent contributors.

2. At a minimum, post items four or five hours before the news begins to push to the newscast, "but if you're going to do it right you need to be there all the time, especially for breaking news and weather events," Weeks added. "You won't believe the traffic that will drive to your sites and the newscast."

Mid-morning, a poll -- often related to local news -- goes up on the station's website and on Facebook, and often gets about 75 comments. The early evening newscasts at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. include website, Twitter and Facebook comments at least a couple times a week, as does the 10 p.m. newscast.

3. Find an internal social media guru, and let that person lead the charge. Ryan Vaughan, the station's chief meteorologist, has embraced social media but has also found others in the building and told them to run with it and see what they could figure out. New employees get training in KAIT's three-screen approach (TV, Web, mobile), and since this is a first television job for many of the employees, Weeks says "we spend a lot of time developing them after their initial training."

Being the only TV station in the market has let the station experiment in ways other markets might be afraid to do, Weeks believes.

"We're going to tell you what stories we're covering," Weeks said. "I think you have to do that, it doesn't matter if you're in Jonesboro or New York or Los Angeles."

4. Make sure your website is updated often, and the stories also get shared on the appropriate social media. "Every time we put a new story on the site, it definitely goes to Facebook or Twitter," Weeks said, noting that the type of story dictates which social networking site it will be posted to. "If we think it's something that's going to get passed around, it goes to Twitter, if it's going to get commented on, it goes to Facebook."

These tips mirror the advice from a couple of recent blog posts, including this one from Reputationline and Kim Wilson's post on "Eight Ways Your Newsroom Can Get More Out of Facebook."

While using Facebook and Twitter as promotional tools has become second nature, Weeks says using social media has also changed the newsroom. It's made them much more aware of how their audience feels about events happening in the Jonesboro area, and the six counties they cover, stretching all the way to Little Rock.

The producers keep an eye on the comments, both for content and to make sure the conversation stays civil, and that in turn can help inform the journalism itself.

"It has almost revolutionized the way we cover news," Weeks says. "Our audience, en masse, can communicate with us as we cover stories. Our audience is engaged more with our product, their voice is heard, and they feel like they're part of the news."

  • Regina McCombs

    Regina McCombs is a faculty member of The Poynter Institute, teaching multimedia, and social and mobile journalism. She was the senior producer for multimedia at in Minneapolis-St. Paul for 11 years.


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