There’s been a lot of talk about funding journalism and how the web can play a part in this, but the web above all for journalists offers an opportunity to create readers+.
Journalists have always had contacts, those people who we can go to for comment and stories. They might be professional people, police officers, nurses or the local cleaner at the comprehensive who overhears gossip when he’s having a ciggie round the back of the head’s office.
Now, though, through social media and the web we’ve got a pool of intelligent, connected and helpful people at our finger-tips. Here’s how to leverage it:
Searching Twitter for key topics reveals what your area knows
If you’re using Twitter, learn how to search for key topics and phrases. For example, we’ve recently had an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the South Wales Valleys. Searching for ‘legionnaires’ will bring up any mention of it on Twitter and you can see who tweeted it. This means you can keep on top of what other news sources are saying about the outbreak and also watch out for anyone tweeting ‘Shit! My gran’s got legionnaires’!’ or ‘Yay! Work closed tomorrow because of legionnaires!’. Bam. A tweet like that and you might have a way in.
Don’t forget the private word…
Using Twitter’s private message function. Using the legionnaires’ example above, if you reply publicly to that tweet you might not get much of a response. If you follow that person, they might follow you back, then you’ll have a chance to private message them on Twitter. This is an easy way to exchange phone numbers/email address’. Also, check if the person has a blog or website addressed listed on their profile as this might give you a way to get in touch.
Asking for help and case studies
Asking for help via social networks. You’ve been landed with a 800-word feature on a topic you don’t know that much about, you need some experts but you also want some real people. A newspaper full of X spokesperson and stuffy academic Y is not much fun. We like reading what Mr Jones from the local action group has to say. Pop a quick post out on Twitter and Facebook saying you’re looking for help ‘finding women over 30 who drink more than 2 glasses of red wine a week’ – or something like that. I’ve been toying with the idea of setting up a ‘We’re looking for…’ page on WalesOnline where we list every type of person/expert etc we’re trying to speak to and the reporter dealing with the story. Make sure you get whoever deals with the main media twitter/facebook accounts to syndicate your requests.
Making yourself available
Get your email address on stories (both offline and online). People like email. It’s often more convenient than a phone call, and let’s face it calling a journalist can be a scary thing to do – especially if you catch them on deadline and you’re trying to get a notice out about a village fete.
Contacts should be searchable
Setup a Google Doc with all your contacts. I have a google doc contacts book (as well as a downloaded backup and hard copy print out done every couple of months). Create columns for forename, surname, what they do, what they are good for, the area they relate to, email address, mobile, phone, address, website and twitter account. This then becomes an incredibly powerful database of contacts you can search at a moments notice – without needing to remember the name of the chair of that residents action group you once met at a planning committee. You can search by name, what they do or what area they cover. Once you’ve got a contacts list, it’s worth sending out a quarterly email to those contacts to let them know what stories you’ve been working on and what you will be working on (i.e. what you could use a hand with).
Share the contact love
You can also setup shared contacts lists via Google Docs, so for example in our newsroom we have a shared Cardiff councillors contacts list. This allows all reporters access, is searchable by different fields and can be updated if a reported gets a new or better contact line for councillors.
Facebook will yield super-fans
Finding specialists and super-fans on Facebook. Facebook has groups. These are setup to allow people with similar interests to come together and celebrate the brilliance of, for example, William Shatner. This is searchable via the groups tag in Facebook, and if you look carefully it’ll show you the groups creator. You can then click on this person, view a basic profile and most importantly send them a message. You don’t even need to be a friend to send them a message. It could be your way in to getting in touch with a relevant and useful person.
Bloggers can be local and niche experts
Make a list of bloggers and subscribe to what they do (use an RSS reader to do this, there’s plenty of good ones out there like Google Reader. RSS allows you to read blog posts without having to visit lots of different websites all the time!). Monitor local bloggers, both location-orientated ones and topic-specific ones. If a new restaurant is opening in town, the local food blogger might know about it and be able to offer an extra few lines of comment.
More than meets the eye to online photos
Make use of photos. Flickr is a powerful tool for keeping an eye (literally, a visual eye) on your area. Monitor it for new photos and get your own flickr page. When you’re out and about on stories, take photos (don’t be afraid of using your mobile phone for this) of interesting things and post them to the Flickr account. Connect with local photographers. Subscribe to a feed of your local groups photos (search Flickr for your area) and you’ll be able to see, in your RSS reader, all the local photos being taken. You’ll be amazed at the stories which can come from an interesting Flickr photo. Plus, if picture desk are being pissy, you might be able to ask a Flickr photographer to use one of their photos for a story.
Why have readers+?
Readers+ will help you out. They comment on stories, they re-tweet and share your stories. They might even blog about something you’ve written about and carry on the debate. They will stick up for you. They begin to have a personal attachment to your work and style. They are not government officials, PR people or other people paid to speak to you. They are real people. It also increases their attachment to your media brand and who knows, they might buy the paper and visit the website more as a result.
How have you used social media to find out things? Any other tips on using the web to help with your reporting? Let me know in the comments below