“It’s like taking vitamins. You probably need them at some point. Which ones? How often? It’s a mystery to me.” That’s how one student described her confusion, prior to taking my social media journalism course, about which social media platforms and mobile apps to use while reporting. Even though students are “digital natives,” many do not yet understand how to use social media in journalistic ways.
We know the use of mobile devices and social media for reporting is no longer a novelty. Twitter. Facebook. Instagram. These are some of the social media tools altering how journalists do their jobs and how people consume news. What exactly should journalists be tweeting or sharing on Facebook? How can we teach students the skills journalists need to hone to succeed in today’s evolving newsrooms?
Several to-do list assignments in my Mobile and Social Media Journalism course help students understand how they should be using social media in the field. Mobile and Social Media Journalism, a course I developed at Ithaca College’s Park School of Communications, has allowed the journalism department to enhance curriculum and evolve with industry standards.
DIGITAL-FIRST MEANS SOCIAL-FIRST
From day one in the course, I discuss the “digital-first” approach. This lays the foundation for our assignments. “Digital-first” used to mean “website-first.” A digital-first approach nowadays requires journalists to share information to social and mobile platforms first in many cases, particularly during breaking news situations. A news outlet’s website is important, of course, but it’s increasingly becoming the secondary spot to publish information. As Ken Doctor writes in an article about the newsonomics of social media optimization (SMO), “the social web is the new home page.”
Journalists’ and news outlets’ social media activities are becoming a key driver of traffic to outlets’ websites. Less and less are people going directly to sites, as indicated by Pew’s State of the News Media 2015. Instead, through SMO, news outlets are engaging with audiences on social platforms, in hopes that this translates into visits to the website.
SOCIAL MEDIA TO-DO LIST
Honing reporting skills comes from years of practice. Repetition is key in the classroom as well. Students produce biweekly stories using iPad minis. Each story must contain a 550- to 600-word written portion, a photo gallery (images must be taken with a mobile device), and a 1- to 1:30-minute video (using the iMovie app). Students post the multimedia stories on their WordPress websites.
While covering a story, students complete a to-do list of social media tasks. The idea is that reporting is a conversation in which we take an audience along on the process. A typical to-do list contains video teases and a certain number of engaging (social media optimized) tweets and Facebook posts.
The to-do lists give them an organized and strategic approach to using social media while reporting. Posts should be social media optimized. For example, they’ll include @mentions, hashtags, and visuals — items that lead to increased engagement.
Here’s a sample to-do list. Visit the course website to check out all of the lists.
- At least four tweets related to your story. Give your audience meaningful information. Remember to @mention and use hashtags when possible. Ideas we’ve discussed: quotes from sources, ask a question about the story, provide a behind-the-scenes look.
- At least one post to your professional Facebook page, using the same recommendations as the item above. Remember, on Facebook, you can tag Facebook pages and people in your posts. This will alert those tagged and likely lead to more engagement via their sharing and liking the posts.
- Produce one video tease and then share to your professional social media platforms. I have my students experiment with Twitter’s new native video feature as well as the Videolicious, and iMovie apps. You can upload videos from the apps to a YouTube page, and then share the YouTube video.
- Two photos. Students share on Twitter and their professional Facebook page.
Grading: Each student creates a Storify that contains items from the to-do list and submits the link to their Storify. I view each Storify to make sure students have completed the items.
IS IT WORKING?
I provide students with another to-do list, a worksheet that helps them keep track of key metrics. The goal is for them to learn how to use analytics tools to monitor and analyze the effectiveness of their social media activity and to determine the type of content that leads to increased engagement (think SMO). I have them fill out the worksheet periodically throughout the semester. At the end of the semester, students give a social media portfolio presentation, which must include an analysis of their social media activity.
Students include a discussion of their analytics from:
- Twitter Analytics
- Facebook Insights (Available for professional pages, not personal ones. My students create professional pages.)
- WordPress Stats
Key questions on the analytics to-do list:
- Which tweets and Facebook posts received the most engagement: retweets, favorites, likes, shares, clicks, and replies?
- What’s unique about those particular social media posts?
- Do you notice a relationship between your social media activity and website traffic?
- What are your top visited posts and pages?
- What are the top referrers to your website?
Students typically notice that when their social media activity is consistent and SMO tactics are used, they receive the most traffic to the stories posted on their websites — and that traffic typically comes from social media, not direct visits to the websites. Just as new outlets are learning, social media activity is a key driver to websites and the overall brand.
Anthony Adornato, a former broadcast journalist, is an assistant professor of journalism at Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications. Adornato specializes in teaching and researching mobile and social media journalism. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonyadornato.