February 28, 2011

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is a 2011 Shorty Award finalist, but the paper’s Allison Fabella is not writing an acceptance speech just yet.

Fabella, the senior producer for SEO, social media and metrics at the AJC, won’t be attending the March 28 ceremony in New York, but in any case the speech would be brief — tweetable even.

The Shortys honor the best producers of short, real-time content on Twitter, and acceptance speeches are officially limited to 140 characters. That was a rule often honored in its absence at last year’s event.

The AJC mixes news and humor in its Twitter stream.

Nominees for all of the 30 official awards categories are submitted by fans via Twitter. The winners are selected by members of the Real-Time Academy for Short Form Arts & Sciences. This year’s jury includes Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, and actress Alyssa Milano, among others.

The AJC is nominated in the News category, the result of more than 100 recommendations from followers of its @AJC Twitter stream. Fabella said she was pleased to see the nominations and especially the associated comments. “They were very reflective of the voice” the team is trying to maintain in its Twitter efforts: funny but informative.

A few of @AJC’s tweets from last week exemplify the approach:

“No special observances today, but Sunday is International Polar Bear Day. Thought you might want to prepare.”

“Crime must be at an all-time low in Villa Rica. Cop targets Girl Scouts selling cookies. http://bit.ly/ekC9kL

“Hazmat situation clears #GaTech building, but no injuries or #mutants reported.”

In their nominations, readers seemed to appreciate the effort:

“N. S. Wade I nominate @ajc for a Shorty Award in #news because their tweets are clever and funny yet very informative.”

“Sarah Walraven I nominate @ajc for a Shorty Award in #news because they inform, interact and make me giggle.”

Balancing humor and news is not easy, and Fabella credits the AJC’s five-person breaking news team with making it work. Each member of the team handles tweeting duties during regular shifts, and they do so semi-anonymously from the @AJC account.

Fabella said readers have had some fun trying to identify individual tweeters, and the paper took advantage of that “sense of mystery” for a promotional video focused on the Shorty Awards.

In the video, members of the team, shown only in silhouette and with digitized voices, answer questions about their tweeting habits. Their rather fanciful approach was also reflected in a “Shorty Interview” on the awards ceremony’s website. Notably, jury member Alyssa Milano made several appearances in the answers:

“What are some words or phrases you refuse to shorten for brevity? ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’. And ‘DUI'”

“Terms you wish would start trending on Twitter right now? #ajcdeservesashorty #alyssamilanodevelopshugecrushonajcduringshortyawards”

“What inspires you to tweet? Interesting news that I think others would like to know about. That and the chance to meet Alyssa Milano thru this contest.”

The AJC currently has more than 31,000 followers, an increase of 21,000 over the past year for its primary Twitter account. The paper also counts 217,000 total followers across its almost 80 accounts, which include beat writers, sports teams and opinion columnists.

Fabella credits that growth in followers to the work of the breaking news team and an overall strategic focus on social media and Twitter in 2010.

Previously, she said, the paper’s efforts were not as effective as they should have been. “We were doing [Twitter] because everyone else was doing it. We didn’t have any goals around it. We didn’t know why we were doing it. We didn’t know what we were trying to get out of it.”

She argues that newsrooms need to set social media objectives and take them seriously. “Once you have a clearer idea of what your goals are,” she said, “a lot of the strategy kind of naturally falls into place because you know why you are doing it.”

In 2010, the AJC focused on audience development, marketing the paper and using Twitter as a reporting tool.

Fabella said simply engaging with the audience on Twitter was a turning point for the paper. “We started seeing tweets like ‘The AJC just retweeted what I said’ or ‘The AJC answered my question.’ People learned they could come to us in a way they couldn’t come to us before.”

This new relationship with readers has been effective for reporters, she said. A recent story on home sales was partially sourced via Twitter. But, the approach is especially effective for breaking news.

“We get an awful lot of tips through Twitter,” Fabella told me. “It is not uncommon that someone will tweet ‘Hey @AJC I just saw a bunch of firetrucks and the bomb squad drive by.’” A member of the breaking news team will then call the police to check on the incident.

“That happens daily,” she said. And the key is not only taking the information in, but also reporting out. “We will come back 15 minutes or an hour later,” and post an update:

“Ongoing rescue of trapped man. We’re on it. ~>RT @znbailey: @ajc what’s going on in buckhead? Two news copters hovering for past 10 mins”

Fabella argues it is important to close that loop with readers. If the report turns out to be nothing, the AJC team will tweet that fact. If it does turn into a story, they will let readers know a reporting team is on its way to the scene.

That effort is about building trust, keeping the paper involved in the conversation, and making it a resource for the community.

“We follow through. We will give a conclusion to whatever it is a reader inquired about,” she said.  “That’s what a news organization is really supposed to do.”

But will the AJC’s approach win it a Shorty? Fabella hopes so.

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