behind the news

Social media in smaller markets

How three social media managers deal with smaller markets and more local coverage.
June 10, 2013

Rob Fishman’s announcement that “the social media editor is dead,” prompted plenty of responses, from Adweek to Zombie Journalism and many social media editors and digital media strategists in between.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of them disagreed with Fishman’s premise that their role in the newsroom was obsolete, some vehemently so on HuffPost Live’s discussion of the topic. As it turns out, two of those participants, Anthony De Rosa and Liz Heron, recently announced their own transitions out of the social media editor role; so-called “social media all-star” De Rosa is leaving Reuters to become Circa’s editor in chief later this month, while the Wall Street Journal‘s Liz Heron has been given the newly created title of “Editor, emerging media.” On one hand, we’re seeing upward mobility in the social media editor position. On the other, this lends credence to Fishman’s suggestion that the responsibilities of that position are very much in flux, to the point where that position may no longer exist. Reuters has yet to announce De Rosa’s replacement, nor has it filled the deputy social media editor position last held by Matthew Keys.

Yet all this talk of the death of social media editors uses examples from huge brands and publications that have the budget and resources to experiment, change, and innovate on this kind of scale — Reuters, the AP, and The New York Times, for example. Lost in all the debate has been the role of the social media editor in smaller markets and more local publications. The social media presences of my hometown’s local papers, for example — The Berlin Citizen and The New Britain Herald — are bare bones at best. Twitter accounts with fewer than 250 followers that merely tweet links to the latest articles; Facebook pages with few likes and little reader engagement. Maybe that’s a sign that these publications don’t need a social media editor and their readers aren’t interested in engaging with their news this way. Then again, it could mean that these publications need a social media editor more than ever.

With all this in mind, I reached out to social media editors (or people whose job responsibilities include social media brand management) at three smaller outlets (The Hartford Courant, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and The Topeka Capital-Journal) who do their jobs particularly well, both in terms of how they engage their communities and how they think about social media and its role in the newsroom.

First, the basics: your official title, how long you’ve been in this position, and some info about your outlet and its social media presence

Sherman Smith: online news editor, The Topeka Capital-Journal. I’ve been in this position for two years and with the C-J for nine years. I’m not sure of exact figures, but our daily print circulation is somewhere between 30K and 35K, with a little boost on Sundays. I think our online numbers may be proprietary, but most days we have twice the number of unique visitors to our digital platform than we have print readers. We are hyperlocal in our coverage. Topeka’s population is 128K, and Shawnee County is at 178K. Our reach extends beyond the county for bigger stories in adjacent counties. We have 9,866 likes at There are 5,674 followers at

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Kelly Sullivan: Social Media Coordinator/Mobile Manager. I’ve been in this position for more than a year. Hartford Courant Facebook likes: 13,500, Twitter followers: 21,460 [daily circulation, according to most recent Alliance for Audited Media figures, is just over 128,000]

Jen Westpfahl: Deputy Editor of Digital News and Social Media. I used to be the Social Media Editor, a position we no longer have. I’ve been in this role, in its two iterations, for about 18 months. The Pioneer Press/ covers the eastern half of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area and has a print circulation of 193,000 daily and 268,000 Sunday. We have 25,800 Twitter followers and 17,000 Facebook fans.

Did you have any journalism experience before you became the social media editor?

Sherman Smith: Before moving into this role, I worked on the copy desk and an alternative storytelling section, then served as a lead print designer before moving over to online operations. There was some special projects reporting in there somewhere.

Kelly Sullivan: Yes, I freelanced at the Hartford Courant and then worked as a Web producer there. I also got my BA in journalism from the University of Connecticut.

Jen Westphal: Yes, I had been a copyeditor for 7.5 years and a Web producer for one year.

Do you consider yourself to be a journalist?

SS: First and foremost.

KS: Yes.

JW: Absolutely.

How would you describe what you do?

SS: Honestly, I mostly click buttons. We like to call it “driving the Web.” The idea is that we always have a Web editor tasked with monitoring the website for content and traffic, trying to make the most of both by expanding the most popular or important items and pushing them into prominent positions. It is a lot like being the slot editor for a digital medium. We try to instill a sense of urgency among reporters to feed the beast, so to speak, which results in stories being developed online and updates teased in tweets. We want readers to know if you are late getting to work in the morning because of an accident on the interstate–you should be able to log on to CJOnline by the time you get there and find out what it was that happened. I work with the reporters here to try to make that possible.

KS: I focus on building a community for the Hartford Courant and all of our reporters on social media. I also create interactive elements with our stories while thinking about how our readers are consuming our content. Often social media is used via mobile.

I do the same for FOX CT. We are an integrated newsroom, with both TV and print reporters sharing one newsroom, so while I oversee the Hartford Courant‘s main handles on social media, I do the same for FOX CT.

JW: I manage a team of eight digital-only journalists and Web producers who are responsible for managing our website and social channels. I also help guide our digital strategy and training throughout the newsroom.

Has that changed over time?

SS: The main thing is the urgency. Before 2008, we were still mired in the outdated philosophy of pushing the newspaper’s content online around midnight, with few exceptions for major breaking news. There was a lot of concern about providing up-to-date information because of its potential effect on print subscriptions. Today, we are a digital-first publication, and the print edition serves as a sort of best-of compilation from the past 24 hours.

Obviously, we still recognize the print audience, working to advance stories with a next-day angle, for instance, but everything is dictated by the fact that information is immediate.

Also, we started charging for online subscriptions in December. We use the sort of metered system that has become all the rage these days, allowing a limited number of free views before a reader has to pay up.

KS: Yes. Some aspects of using social media (mainly Twitter) have been absorbed into each role in the newsroom. All Courant reporters have Twitter accounts and our town reporters post to town Facebook pages as well. As for the main accounts, I still run those but more of my time is now spent focusing on expanding our social media presence beyond the usual Twitter/Facebook. I also focus on how interactive content that we create will perform on tablets and phones for our mobile consumers.

JW: Yes. When I was solely the social media editor, not in charge of other digital news, I was the only person running all of our social accounts during normal business hours. Now, my whole team shares those duties. At that time, there were a lot of reporters just starting to use social media. So training, guidance, monitoring and troubleshooting were big parts of my job; they are now a very small part of my job.

What is a typical day like for you?

SS: A Web editor (either me or one of the other two on my staff) comes in at 7:30 am to start shepherding … new content into place. I monitor the wire and an email folder where news releases are sent, and touch base with every reporter on duty that day to make sure I know what is going on. Based on what is happening, I can direct reporters’ efforts to develop a story further or work on something more pressing. I’m also listening to the scanners, and if there are multiple breaking news stories, such as a shooting and an injury accident, I need to determine who goes where.

Throughout this process, I’m also monitoring reader comments on the website, approving new user accounts, and keeping tabs on various Twitter lists and Facebook pages to see what other media are working on, what our reporters are saying, and what people are saying to and about us.

We use ChartBeat to see how many readers we have on our website at a given moment, and what they are looking at. To emphasize the need for urgency, we have two big TVs on the wall in the newsroom — one that shows the website and one that shows the ChartBeat report. It has become common for a reporter, shortly after filing a big story, to rush over to the TV and watch its audience grow. As Web editors, we are constantly looking at this service to make sure we have the best stories in the best places.

Several times throughout the day, I’ll switch out the stories we have featured in prominent positions, a key we have found to retaining and attracting an audience. When things are going smoothly, this is an organic process: Something new and interesting happens, trumping the outdated story. Other times, it feels like I’m just shuffling cards. Part of my responsibility is to push reporters in directions that keep the latter from happening.

I’m also editing stories as they are being sent to the website and working to improve headlines, both for SEO purposes and to appeal to people already on the site. I also attach the photos (and sometimes work them) and videos to the stories. Often, I need to take a call from someone in the field to update information on the website. And as needed, I’ll makes the calls and write the stories.

Additionally, I build databases and slideshows and try to guide Twitter discussions with staff members.

KS: Most days start with a news meeting to get an idea of what stories are coming. When there is breaking news, I am glued to my seat running our social media accounts. But other days I’m trying out new tools and planning more long-term for projects or stories, or focusing on mobile.

Are your newsroom colleagues largely aware of and/or able to use social media tools? Are they expected to be?

SS: We require reporters either have a Twitter account or blog regularly. Two chose the blog route. Everybody has to have a smartphone, so unless there’s a reception problem, there’s never a reason they can’t engage with readers.

Although we have an organizational account that spits out tweets for just about every headline, we feel like the real value is in individual accounts — the live coverage of events, building a following, etc. Depending on the beat, and frequency or quality of tweets, many of our reporters have hundreds of followers, and we see it as a highly valuable tool for interacting with the community and getting folks interested in the content we provide.

There is a constant process of pointing to good and bad practices and encouraging others to take note.

We are just getting our feet wet with things like Pinterest and Storify and other forms of social media, with those responsibilities being bounced around.

KS: Yes, they are aware of social media tools and able to use them, and they are also expected to use them. I conduct training sessions when needed and come up with social media strategies per department.

JW: They are expected to use social media. Technically they are required to use it but there’s not really anyone saying, “Hey, why haven’t you tweeted today?” or anything like that. They are all aware of and able to use social media tools but the range of their proficiency is wide.

What did you think of that BuzzFeed article? Did you find it true to your experience?

SS: The article points to the fragmenting of a social media editor’s responsibilities as a growing trend. For better or worse, it has always been that way here and at other small papers in our area.

It is difficult for me to see the value of having someone who just tweets about what everybody else is working on. And while we tend to babble too much, I’d like to think we babble with a purpose.

I don’t want to be written off like one of the traditional (re: old) journalists who have a negative, knee-jerk reaction to the term “social media” in general. In fact, I can see the value of having a central figure tasked with developing some sort of unified strategy and enforcing it. But that is a luxury we can’t really afford. Even at a bigger paper, is that really the best use of limited resources?

The alternative is to encourage everyone to be their own social media editor. We are already used to wearing multiple hats in our newsroom — reporters who also have copy desk shifts or take the photos for their stories, for instance. No matter what the role is, I think the most important asset is to be a good journalist. That isn’t meant to diminish the value of social media skills. But a good journalist with bad skills is more valuable than a gadfly without reporting experience.

So while we want our reporters to cultivate their “personal brand,” that brand needs to stand for something meaningful.

KS: I agree that social media is not a novelty anymore, and I think most social media positions have evolved into much more, mine included.

JW: I agree with Jennifer Preston and others about social media needing to be integrated and not belonging to one person. I do find it true to my experience because when I was hired, my boss said that if I was good at my job, I’d work myself out of a job. It sounded alarming but ended in a promotion! On the flip side, I think there is often still a place for a leader in the social media space. Although our reporters all know Twitter now, they may not know how to leverage Instagram or they may have never heard of Vine. I’m generally the one scoping out and vetting new tools, services, and practices for the rest of the newsroom.

Are your readers active on social media and/or interact with your accounts and reporters (and vice versa)?

SS: Just about every reporter and editor here has followers we interact with on a regular basis. Those who find a way to show off their personality without compromising their objectivity are able to engage people the most, and readers seem to appreciate that. I don’t know that anyone outside of a newsroom cares much about bylines, but social media makes us more human, which has a positive effect.

KS: I do find that our readers are very active on social media. We actually just created a new section in our Sunday paper called ‘Socially Speaking’ where we include comments from our social media users on the previous weeks’ major stories. We often have a lot of conversations and debates going on Facebook.

JW: Our readers are extremely active on social media. They do interact with our branded accounts and with the reporters who use social media effectively.

Is social media an effective tool for reporting in your coverage area? Do you find that many of your readers use Twitter/Facebook/etc. for news? Do they even want to have that kind of engagement with their local papers?

SS: More than anything, we just try to keep people informed, and social media is a useful tool for doing that. Twitter and Facebook allow that concept to work in reverse sometimes, too. If there are layoffs, we will find out about it on Twitter long before we get an official statement. Sometimes, we can leverage information from social media to force a comment from an official source. The tips, reactions, and sometimes outrageous statements that come with social media have become part of the newsgathering process. Other times we just need to explain the context of a story or help someone better understand why something is happening. This engagement has become an essential part of what we do as journalists.

KS: I think social media is an effective tool for our local reporting — reporters often use Twitter or Facebook to find a source. I do see a lot of people in Connecticut using our social media accounts to get their news and voice their opinions. But people also share pictures and news tips with us and I do read and respond to those.

JW: Absolutely. People in our coverage area are very social media savvy. You’ll often hear people say, “Oh yeah, I saw that on Twitter.” You might even hear that more (at least in my social circles) than “I saw that on the news.” People do want engagement with their media outlets and we get compliments on our conversational, engaging tone on Twitter as compared to others in our market.

What have been some highlights or rewarding experiences in your work?

SS: Unfortunately, the times social media can be most useful are when terrible, tragic stories are unfolding. Like the Boston bombing scenario in the BuzzFeed article, it brings out the best and worst in social media. For me, the value of engaging with the community was most useful in December during a manhunt that followed the senseless gunning down of two police officers at a grocery store. People were panicked and misinformed, and for once, it felt like we were making a difference in their lives.

KS: I think covering the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, will always be the experience that had the most effect on me. It was so tragic and so many people (not just those local to Connecticut) were getting their information through the Facebook and Twitter accounts of the Hartford Courant. On the day of the shooting, I actually physically moved where I was sitting to sit next to our breaking news editor, so that when new and verified information was available, I was able to post it on social immediately. Later, I made a Storify of our social media tweets and Facebook updates from our main accounts and our reporters at the scene. It was chilling to see the updates we sent out in chronological order like that, almost tweet by tweet.

JW: The most rewarding things are probably 1. When you see a light bulb light up above a reporter’s head and you know they understand the benefits of social media and how to reap them. 2. When our readers congratulate or thank us for doing something well, whether it’s a well-written tweet or the comprehensive coverage of a difficult topic.

Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison.