In an era when journalists feel pressure to use social media to build their personal brands, Connie Schultz has done something far more interesting. She has adapted the classic newspaper column to her Facebook page, bringing the best of the traditional form—newsiness, insight, journalistic principles, and personability—to a forum that often serves as a narrower vehicle for self-promotion.
A former columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, Schultz is now a syndicated columnist and a contributor to Politico Magazine and Parade. But arguably her biggest presence these days is on Facebook, where she has cultivated a community of more than 130,000 followers on a page that serves as both a news source and a forum for civil discussion of tough issues. The Cleveland-centric feed is infused with national headlines; conversations move between the verdict in the Michael Brelo trial to presidential politics to the consent decree between the Department of Justice and the Cleveland Police Department. There’s also a healthy dose of opinionating about LeBron James, naturally, while personal touches—like photos of Schultz’s dog, Franklin—serve as disarming points of connection amid the sometimes spirited debate. (Pointedly, Schultz uses a personal page with public settings, rather than a fan page.)
As a reader who has sometimes found the big-picture, contextual coverage from Cleveland news organizations wanting, I have discovered that Schultz’s Facebook page is energizing. It is also, like any good news source, eminently useful. Threads on the Brelo verdict, for example, traded tips on where demonstrations were unfolding. In breaking-news moments, like the 2012 Chardon High School shooting, it is a place to turn for latest developments, with bad information filtered out.
Schultz’s clear-eyed moderation staves off rumor-mongering, heightening the credibility of the page, and other journalists, too, weigh in on the discussion. “I don’t want to be a celebrity,” she adds. “I want to be a trusted source.” And it’s working. For journalists seeking a path to meaningful engagement with readers—not just a way to blast links and hashtags at them—the page is a model.
Schultz, of course, is transparent about her liberal politics, and the fact that she is married to Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat in the US Senate. (It was Brown’s political career that prompted her to resign from The Plain Dealer in 2011.) But on her Facebook page, people with different political viewpoints are also part of the conversation, as well as people from different cities and varying economic situations. The mix brings depth to the discussion. “I like the fact that the toughest online debates I’ve ever had have been on her page,” Marcia Bryant, a Clevelander and regular reader, said in an email. “Not just because she welcomes a diversity of viewpoints but because I care enough about the community she’s built there that I’m really invested in the conversation.”
Schultz was actually a reluctant adopter of Facebook, taking to the platform only because reporting demanded it when, in 2007, she was trying to contact Cleveland college students at Virginia Tech in the aftermath of the campus shooting. Even then, she had only a cursory set-up, and it took her awhile to figure out how to post links. “It’s something my generation of journalists doesn’t need to be defensive about—how we came to this later,” Schultz said.
As her familiarity grew over time, so did her instinct to spotlight the best possible journalism: “If we’re getting news on the web anyway, and increasingly on Facebook, I want to be a forum that presents strong reporting,” she said.
But there is a distinction between a feed that features links, no matter how well curated, and one that is a full-fledged community. Over the past few years, Schultz has built the latter by both engaging readers and enforcing standards of discussion. Though the page is public, only she can post links. (Readers send her tips via private messages.) When she posts on a controversial issue, she commits to staying online to moderate the beginning of the discussion in order to set the tone. “Nothing gets out of control faster than the issue of race,” she says. “You can’t post about race or racial bias and then walk away. You can’t do it.”
That includes the Brelo verdict: Schultz was on duty to remove rumors about demonstrations that never took place and violence that didn’t happen. One commenter went off on a local organizer without naming her—that, too, was deleted. To sift through it all, Schultz looks for key phrases: “I heard,” or perhaps “someone told me.” Then she replies: “Can we have a link to that please?” Often, commenters will promptly delete their own posts. Or, if they offer a specious link as evidence, Schultz explains why “that’s not a credible source and we’re not going to do that.” In short, she practices civility, not snark. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Schultz says that many women have told her the page is the first form of public discourse that they’ve engaged in.)
In a way, this is teaching media literacy—something Schultz said she is “glad to do if it helps people understand what we [journalists] do, and helps create the standards by which they measure our performance. An informed public takes this job seriously.… The values that distinguish us from rumor-mongers are important to champion.”
The page also generates tips and sources that improve her more traditional journalism. Schultz wrote her syndicated column last week about Lois Mickey Nash, an 88-year-old African American woman from Cleveland who marched in a rally after the Brelo verdict. Schultz made the connection because Nash is the aunt of a participant on her page.
Schultz offered to pose a question of mine to the readers of her page for this story. I asked them: “Why is this Facebook page one that you find worth reading or participating in, and what role do you see it playing in the larger public conversation?” What followed was a stream of more than 400 passionate responses; for the first 24 hours, Facebook was pinging me every couple minutes with another reader testimonial. Here is a sampling:
Links to great content. Civility. Wit. Willing to think critically about issues facing our democracy, but always through the lens of “how do we make this a better place?” I feel like this is a group that is committed to building up our society as a whole, rather than just tearing down parts of it.
Connie is first and foremost a journalist with the ethics and professionalism to go with that designation. Most social media citizen journalists are proof that those trained in the profession are always going to be necessary. That’s how she can post information we trust about topics that make us care.
Connie has very deliberately cultivated an environment wherein discussion and opinions are encouraged and treated with respect. Added to that carefully-simmered pot are Connie’s own reasoned and well-informed comments. What results, from nearly every carefully-chosen post she shares, is the sort of public discourse—politicus—that the early Greeks had in mind but which all too rarely actually takes place.
Or, to put it another way, this isn’t branding. It’s journalism.