January 30, 2019

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel used to use social media the way a lot of newsrooms do — as the digital paperboy meant to deliver the news and get people back to their site. And like a lot of other newsrooms, the Journal Sentinel sent that paperboy out a lot.

In 2017, they made some changes. They still share frequently on Facebook, but they don’t share everything the 137-year-old newspaper publishes. They’ve figured out the rhythms of their readers, which stories should go on different platforms and how those platforms differ. And the measure now isn’t click-throughs, but getting people engaged with what they’re doing on the platforms where they are.

Since January of 2017, the Journal Sentinel grew Facebook page likes by more than three times, reach by more than seven times and, in the past year, Instagram followers have nearly doubled.

The Journal Sentinel took part in the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, also known as Table Stakes, and one goal was to grow digital subscribers, said Emily Ristow, loyalty and engagement news director. (Disclosure: The Knight Foundation helps fund my coverage of local news, and Lenfest is a funder of Poynter.)

For the Journal Sentinel, social media was the top of the funnel (here’s a funnel refresher if you need one.) Growing audiences on social media has helped them connect with people who aren’t yet subscribers.

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To grow those audiences, the Journal Sentinel stopped dumping every single story on Facebook and started paying attention to what worked when and why.

Before: “We didn’t really think about how it would perform, it was just like we want to broadcast and get this out there,” Ristow said.

In January of 2017, the Journal Sentinel attempted to put some order to the story dumps by creating a posting schedule for Facebook. Knowing how many times a day they were posting was helpful, she said, and forced them to be selective.

That summer, when Ristow moved into her current job, she started strategizing.

Here’s what she found out about Facebook and the Journal Sentinel’s audience there:

  • Stories about people doing good will do well on a weekend morning, but those posts get lost in the shuffle if posted on a weeknight.
  • Politics do well on Saturday nights. A lot of people aren’t looking for news on Facebook on the weekends, but there’s still a core audience looking for stories.
  • Social videos do well anytime, so they post them at 3 a.m. every day.
  • An investigation that gets published online at 7 a.m. might not be posted on Facebook until 7 p.m. when people have time to dig in.

If you’re ready to do more on social media than just share links, Ristow recommends using analytics tools to show how what you’re trying is working. Make sure the headline and the promo work together for that platform. Would it stop you? And think about social media, including bringing in a social team if you have one, earlier rather than later in the reporting process. Last year, Better News wrote about how the Journal Sentinel grew its Facebook reach and started created content just for social audiences.

Ristow works with the homepage editor on weekdays, a producer and two trending reporters on the Journal Sentinel’s flagship Facebook account.

Which stories get posted is an ongoing conversation in the newsroom.

“Are other people, people not journalists, likely to share this story?” Ristow asks.

If it won’t get people talking and sharing, Facebook might not be the right place for it, but there are other platforms that could work, including Twitter.

Last September, the Journal Sentinel opened a branded account on Reddit. And they’ve found that the best use of Instagram is to build a brand, not to drive traffic.

Sports trending reporter JR Radcliffe writes an internal newsletter each week that celebrates social media wins and highlights stories reporters found on and through social media.

She wishes that Facebook was ”more careful and honest about how they handle our data and that they were more transparent about how the platform works.”

“We still have a very large audience on Facebook and you can’t really ignore those people,” she said.

The value, for the Journal Sentinel, is being where their community is, she said.

“Sometimes having fun or being entertained, that is a value, too.”



Correction: An earlier version of this story got the author wrong for an internal newsletter on social media wins.  JR Radcliffe writes it. It has been corrected. We apologize for the error.

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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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