May 27, 2013

For news organizations, Instagram isn’t just about pretty pictures. It’s about the people they’re interacting with and the stories behind the images.

“Instagram is so immediate and intimate that it creates this close connection with the user,” said Cory Haik, executive producer for digital news at The Washington Post. The Post uses Instagram to share photos, collect photos from users, report stories and have personal interactions with its audience. It’s a strategy aimed not at driving traffic but at building community.

The Washington Post solicited Instagram photos of snow from readers. (Courtesy The Washington Post)

“What we ask ourselves about Instagram,” Haik said by phone, “is ‘are we having a meaningful conversation with our users?’”

Instagram for engagement

At the Chicago Tribune, each week brings a new theme for Instagram users to contribute photos around. “Our approach to Instagram at the Tribune is to make sure followers are included whenever possible. So while we do post photos from staff photographers from big events, we spend much of our time focusing on weekly themes and showcasing the photos of the people who engage with us,” Chicago Tribune Social Media Editor Scott Kleinberg said via email.

NBC News makes weekly callouts related to topics in the news like the Kentucky Derby, Super Bowl, holiday weekends and graduation season. It also gives users multiple opportunities to contribute. “A few days after you make a callout people tend to forget about it,” Anthony Quintano, senior community manager for NBC News, said by phone. “We remind them by featuring user photos.”

Quintano said NBC News’ Instagram feed started as an avenue to showcase behind-the-scenes photographs. It has since grown into one of the more prominent news feeds on Instagram. Still, Instagram isn’t a major source of traffic for NBC and other news sites.

An NBC Instagram shot by Frank Thorp V of Michael Isikoff doing a standup in Boston.

“Instagram is more about engagement and brand awareness,” Olivia Hubert-Allen, The Baltimore Sun’s deputy director of audience engagement, said during a phone call.

Quintano suggests newsrooms respond to their followers and to the comments left on photos. He also recommends liking user-submitted photos, particularly those shared in response to a callout. “We use a like as a thank-you and acknowledgment that we’ve seen your photo,” he said.  “The idea there’s a human being behind the account is what you really want.”

Instagram for reporting

When ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott was working on a story about Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling, he sought out Instagram’s help.

About six weeks after he became chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Hensarling’s political action committee held a fundraiser at a fancy Utah ski resort. Elliott imagined it was the kind of event people would likely capture with Instagram. “Thats just what people do when they’re on ski vacations,” he said.

Elliott searched Instagram through the site Statigram looking for photos tagged at the St. Regis Deer Valley hotel, where the fundraiser was held. “I went through the photos and looked at each user and tried to figure out if they were a lobbyist or lobbyist family member,” he said. While Elliott found no evidence the fundraiser broke campaign finance rules, he did find and publish a photo posted by a lobbyist who declined to comment for his story.

ProPublica has sinced developed an open-source tool for searching Instagram.

“If you’re trying to background a person or institution, it’s always good to look at Twitter, Instagram anything you can find on social media,” Elliott said. “If it’s something widely attended, by maybe a couple of hundred people, there’s a decent chance you’ll find photos.”

Several news organizations solicit photographs from users to create online photo galleries. In the past year, The Washington Post has asked its followers to share their photographs of snowstorms, Hurricane Sandy and the best deals they found for Black Friday. Some photographs are used in print editions as well.

The Baltimore Sun features Instagrammers on its visual journalism blog The Darkroom. A recent feature highlighted the Instagram feeds of Orioles fans celebrating the start of baseball season.

Where to start

Hubert-Allen suggests news organizations just starting out on Instagram consider launching with a collection of their best photography. “Our first hundred photos or so were of our greatest photos of the day, and we still do a lot of editor’s pick of the day posts,” she said.

Another option is starting with archive photos. “People love to see a familiar space from 50 years ago and see what it looked like back then,” Hubert-Allen said.

Lauran Berta, digital editor for social media and engagement at the Chicago Sun-Times, said by phone the paper’s photographers often shoot and share Instagrams during live events. “It’s a good way to get instant art to your audience,” she said. The paper also posts its front pages to Instagram.

Quintano at NBC encourages news organizations to incorporate a handful of hashtags into each photo post to increase visibility. Newsrooms rarely build large Instagram followings as they’re launching their accounts, and thousands of followers can take time to collect.

“You have to be patient, especially when you start,” Hubert-Allen said. “It will grow. Be active. Don’t just set up your account and expect everyone to find you.”

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Meena Thiruvengadam is a writer and editorial consultant whose prior stops include Bloomberg, Business Insider, and Yahoo. Her first full-time news job was as a…
Meena Thiruvengadam

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