News Leadership 3.0

April 12, 2009

Reporting on Facebook

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist the popular social networking tool for ideas and sources

Leadership 3.0 contributor Chris Krewson, executive editor/online news at The Philadelphia Inquirer, says Facebook is gaining traction in newsrooms as a reporting tool. Krewson asked Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Monica Yant Kinney, who has been using Facebook for two years, to explain how she integrated the social networking tool into her routine. She is one of a growing number of journalists who use social networks to augment their reporting. Monica Yant Kinney offers a great primer for reportings.

When I joined Facebook, I made a few rules for myself: 1) Accept every person who “friended” me—since you never know who could turn out to be an valuable source. 2) Post status updates openly, honestly and frequently - since the whole point of social networking is to foster a more personal interaction with readers than the printed newspaper allows. 3) And above all else, be open to the possibilities that this new tool offers.

Nearly two years later, I’m approaching 1,000 friends - most of whom I’ve never met, but many of whom have proven to be incredible assets in my column-gathering.

My “friends” include Villanova students & savvy stay-at-home moms, a Main Line psychologist, an a professional harpist, two ministers, an airport baggage supervisor, a suburban PA mayor, a retired city cop, a South Jersey Home Depot worker, scores of passionate advocates, a handful of musicians and artists and last, but never least, the NJ Weedman.

By rough estimate, I’ve written a half-dozen columns that were either directly inspired by Facebook connections. Here’s how I use it:

1) Lurk. Listen. Pipe up. Observe. The more time I spend checking out what other people are talking about and commenting on their musings, the more I know what I should be writing about. Early on, I honed in on a few people who seem to be frequent FB posters and very plugged into their communities. Queen Bees and Alpha Males exist in our midst. Tap into their world and you’ll have a slew of new ideas.

Example: I’ve never been a big fan of personal columns, but the more time I spend on FB, the more I realize that intelligent professionals are interested in talking and mocking their kids and parenting. As a result, I’ve become more willing to do pieces about myself and my foibles when the subject warrants - ie: a look at the princess phenomena when the movie “Enchanted” came out last year; watching the Inauguration with my 5-year-old to write about how children have never known a time when a black man couldn’t be president.

2) Post my columns and the work of other writers as a way to draw more eyeballs to philly.com. Posting everything I write on FB and Twitter also allows my online network to immediately weigh in and converse with each other about the topic of the day. Often, this results in back-and-forths that can lead to follow-up columns.

For example: After a FB friend mused about there being a dearth of good-news pieces about the Philadelphia schools, I engaged in her in a conversation that led to a great tip - a group of Roxborough/Manayunk parents were slowly, but surely, returning to the local public school after years of sending their kids to expensive private education far from where they live. Most of the initial reporting was conducted on FB and Twitter.

3) Ask. Routinely ask the masses what we’re missing, what we should be covering. With layoffs and cutbacks, the Inquirer’s reach is not what it used to be. Wide swaths of our readership area go uncovered, or barely noticed. FB and Twitter can help us be where we’re not - and know where to go. But you have to be willing to be bombarded with tips and complaints from the universe. And you have to show your friends the courtesy of a response. This is not a one-way street.

For example: After colleagues reported that then-State Sen. Vince Fumo was paying a mere pittance in property taxes on his mansion in Spring Garden, I had an idea to write about the fact that I paid far more for my tiny house in Haddonfield. Checked in with a few other South Jersey friends to take their temperature on the subject. The response was swift. Voila - instant comic column, and later, a WHY commentary on the same subject.

I have a column in the works about a group of blind golfers - the tip came from the father of one of the boys. I did one a few months ago about the dilemmas of Morrisville school district - the tip came from a FB friend who had read a previous piece I did and wanted to offer a contrarian view. My FB inbox holds another four or five evergreens that I plan to do at some point in the future.

Finally, find your electronic comfort zone and stay there. You can be too active on FB, too pushy, too intrusive, too friendly. Post, interact, inquire. But don’t abuse the medium or the relationships. Don’t friend every last one of another person’s friends or you’ll look desperate. Don’t be irresponsibly nosy. Don’t get mean or personal. And for God’s sake, remember that everything you say and do is out there, for the world to absorb, forever. Think before you type.

For example: I’m friends w/ one of my teenage babysitters, but I don’t violate her space. We use FB to communicate and I realize I’m her
oldest “friend.” If/when I need to tap into her adolescent world, I will ask, politely. But to do so otherwise seems wrong to me.

(Krewson also posted this article also on journalism.org, the site of the Online News Association.)

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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