How these tiny Missouri newsrooms learned to be smarter about social media

For the last two years at an annual conference, publishers and editors of Missouri newspapers got a few extra hours to sit with a journalism student and learn a new skill. 

It's affectionally called their build-a-bear workshop, said Randy Picht, executive director of the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, Columbia. The students taught either Facebook or Twitter skills. They checked in with those publications six months later, and the accounts were still active. 

"And so we thought, well, this seems to be a good way to go," Picht said. "Maybe we can expand it."

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In January, the school did expand with the Potter Digital Ambassador program, a journalism-themed twist on an alternative spring break (except it's in the winter break and the volunteering is with local newsrooms to help them with social and multimedia.)

The five newspapers in this year's first group weren't behind with the platforms they used, said Jeanne Abbott, an associate professor and managing editor of The Missourian. 

"But as you would expect, they were so strapped with resources and time that they really didn’t think they had time to do it."

Yesterday, we learned how figuring out a strategy helped the Bowling Green Times. Today, let's visit two weeklies that figured out how social media could make their work better without increasing the work itself. 

The Eldon (Missouri) Advertiser

In Bowling Green, editor Ethan Colbert was ready for new skills. In Eldon, Missouri, the five-person newsroom at the Eldon Advertiser was not.

“To say they were resistant is probably an understatement,” said publisher Trevor Vernon. “In the beginning.”

Before her visit, MU senior Claire Rounkles found that the weekly’s only real competition is itself. They weren’t posting their news on Facebook, just ads, despite having stories the community wanted from them. They used Twitter just for sports scores. No one used hashtags.

All those small things add up.

“They weren’t really capitalizing on the fact that they’re the only news source in Eldon,” Rounkles said.

A few breaking news events that happened the week she was there gave Rounkles the chance to show how the Advertiser could do things differently and reach more of the community.  

In April, a historic hotel burned down. On one of the days she was in town, the city planned to tear it down. Rounkles went out with another reporter and helped set up a quick livestream on Facebook of the demolition.

That 30-second video got more than 6,000 views, much higher than the majority of the weekly’s other videos.

The ah-ha moment came on Thursday, the day after the weekly went to print, when she showed more examples of why being present on social media helps that work reach more people. Rounkles created a schedule and showed staff how to use Hootsuite for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

 “Once they did it, they were like, oh my gosh, this is actually very easy.”

She used a coming ice storm as an example of how staff could create a list of closures to help the community instead of just posting weather updates. And she stressed the importance of sharing that work on social after it’s up.

She also found that when the newsroom thought ahead about sharing on social, they were teasing stories they hadn’t yet written. She encouraged them to focus on work that was published and bringing people back to it instead.

Before, social media was an afterthought, Vernon said.

“They’re still doing it and she’s gone,” he said, “so that’s a good tribute.”

The Houston (Missouri) Herald

MU senior Marlee Baldridge spent her ambassadorship week in Houston, Missouri, at the Houston Herald. Before she arrived, she saw that the 140-year-old six-person newsroom (three on editorial) had ambitions to be on social media, just not the resources.

"They weren't one of those newsrooms who were stuck in the past, like 'print or death,'" she said.

And she could see from their Facebook feed that the Herald played an integral part in the community. Baldridge's work, she realized, wasn't teaching tools but changing the newsroom's philosophy around social media to show how it could be useful.

Editor Jeff McNiell, who moved back to his hometown to lead the Herald in 2006, was the only one using social media. 

"No one else bothered," she said. 

She broke the platforms down: Twitter isn't Facebook, so don't do the same thing, for instance. This is where you talk with your audience. Baldridge found the Herald has a strong demographic of young followers there and showed staff how to make a GIF to enliven their posts, how to use polls to engage users and how to crowdsource news in social spaces.

"Because they’re such a small newsroom, they have this mindset of 'I have to do everything and I have to do it really well and I have to do it right now,'" she said. 

Could they retweet a student reporter at a game, or share live updates? 

Among her projects that week, Baldridge trained staff on strategies for Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, taught them to use Splice for mobile video editing and created a primer for the newsroom on shooting and editing video.

"The reality for many of us small, weekly newspapers is that we are doing everything we can do to be relevant and to produce media on a daily basis," McNiell said. "But at the same time, because of the time constraints, we’re not always able to go out and get the training that we would like to get. We don’t always get the tools we would need."

Baldridge helped the Herald find ways to use social media that complimented what they were already doing, he said, including creating short promo videos. 

"I think it showed us that there are things we can do just to expand our reach online and it doesn’t have to be time-consuming," he said.

Right now in Local Edition, Poynter's newsletter on local innovation, we're talking about how to say no and what to stop doing. The other side of that conversation is figuring out what you can and should do that creates the most impactful journalism. 

Hyperlocals are still valued parts of their communities, Baldridge said. But they have to meet people where they are. 

She's from Harrisburg, another small Missouri town, so she knows what it means to have that voice in the community that's looking out for you. But being small, McNiell said, doesn't mean you don't have to keep up.

"You’re not restrained by your size," he said. "I think that’s a misnomer that media people fall into. Even us weeklies."

MU student Marlee Baldridge coaching video production with Jeff McNiell, editor, and Brad Gentry, publisher, of the Houston Herald. She is preparing them to cover events using a mobile video app. (Photo by Jeanne Abbott)

Tomorrow: This newsroom learned how to weave video into their work without actually pivoting to video.

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