May 15, 2019

This summer, Emily Dunn will join scores of new journalists working in local newsrooms. Like them, she’ll be among the youngest and least experienced. Unlike them, she’s there with a singular focus — to help develop a strategy for Instagram.

Dunn is one of three Missouri School of Journalism grads to take part in the first ever Instagram Local News summer fellowship, which was announced Wednesday. The fellowship is a project from Instagram and the Reynolds Journalism Institute at Mizzou.

Dunn, who graduates this month, will be at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Fellow grads Magdaline Duncan will work with The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune and Grace Lett will work with The Boston Globe. The fellowships, which are funded by Instagram, offer mentorship for the students and a place to experiment and reach new audiences in new ways for the newsrooms.

“We’re not expecting to become the next Chrissy Teigen,” said Amanda St. Amand, the Post-Dispatch’s digital editor, in an email. “But it’s a valuable tool that we could be using in a smarter way.”

Often, the goals of projects like this are growth — specifically with followers. But in this case, the goal is to get people in the newsroom thinking about how to reach the next generation of its audience where they are. And for now, one of those places is Instagram.

If newsrooms want to reach younger audiences, they have to include them in the process, said Lila King, with News and Publishing Partnerships at Instagram. In pairing young visual journalists with veterans, she said, “together we can really spark something new.”

Next week, the fellows and their newsroom mentors will get together at Mizzou and Instagram’s news team for a two-day workshop. They’ll look at innovative news coverage on the platform, tools and uses.

Local newsrooms are already full of smart people, said Randy Picht, RJI’s executive director. But they often approach the news differently than digital natives. Getting the two together works for both, he said. During the winter break of 2018, the school sent students to five weeklies to work on strategy, social media and video.

“They’re gonna get the benefit of the established newsroom, but then they’re also gonna get the benefit of being able to experiment with this new storytelling method,” he said.

The fellows will also work with high school students to create an Instagram story about topics for that generation. That project will be overseen by 2018-2019 RJI Fellow Nico Gendron.

“Instagram is such an essential platform for Gen Z,” Gendron said in a press release. “They’re a visually driven generation whose news and information needs are best served by a platform like Instagram. It will be exciting to see how the three participating newspapers’ grow their Gen Z and younger audiences with a defined Instagram strategy.”

Screenshot, Boston Globe Instagram

The Star Tribune uses its account to highlight big news stories, narratives and features and to have a little fun, like it did with a beer bracket, said senior managing editor and vice president Suki Dardarian.

“But you know it helps to have somebody who’s committed to it on a regular basis,” she said. “And it’s always exciting to have a journalism student in the room.”

“We use Instagram now to highlight some of our current work along with some of our historical photos,” St. Amand said of the Post-Dispatch’s account. “But it could be so much more, especially as more of our younger users — millennials and beyond — are focusing more on Instagram and less on some other platforms.”

In Boston, the Globe has two main accounts with two different strategies, said Devin Smith, senior manager of audience engagement. @boston regrams images of the city from the community. @bostonglobe features images from the newsroom’s photojournalists and highlights feature work.

All three newsrooms thought the real opportunity in working with the fellows was to build relationships with younger potential audiences.

“If we can effectively use the platform to bring a new group of people into our orbit and expose them to our journalism in an off-the-page way, that Instagram follower could eventually become a newsletter subscriber, event attendee or paying reader,” Smith said in an email.

Building a new approach to reaching new audiences on Instagram is a long-game strategy, King said. It’s not just about increasing referral traffic, she said, but developing a community.

“I think the trick is how to turn that into a sustainable business,” King said. “That’s the piece that we’ll all have to figure out next.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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