Social media: Selecting the right tools for the job

With so many social media tools available, it’s easy to feel overloaded. When Google Plus was released, many social media journalists sighed. “Another platform to update?” Already, new networks like Pinterest are vying for attention. There is much pressure to be present everywhere, all the time, for fear of missing out on the next big thing.

Tool overload?

Relax, says Robert Niles. It’s okay if you don’t use everything. Instead, it’s helpful to remember why we’re using all these shiny new things: To better tell stories.

“Ultimately, we publish to meet a need in our communities. (And to get paid for meeting that need.),” Niles writes. “All these social media services and publishing gadgets are tools to help us do that.”

He echoes a sentiment Alfred Hermida voiced at last month’s Carnival of Journalism, a round of topical blog posts by interested journalists.

“The starting point for this discussion is the public, not the tools. Talking about tools is the last thing we should be doing,” Hermida wrote.

Instead of saying “reporters should tweet”, we should think about how tweeting helps reporters connect with their audience, find information or direct people to their work (all things that Twitter happens to be a great tool to achieve). Like David Cohn, Hermida argues that figuring out your objective or strategy is important in determining which tool to use. Why do you want to use a tool? How do you want to change the relationship with your readers?

Using social media by itself doesn’t mean innovation. In fact, it’s very easy to use social media simply as another avenue of promotion to push out your content. It’s easy not to think about how to let responses in, partly because doing so means giving up control, something many newsrooms are terrified of.

But the great thing about social media is that it can fundamentally alter the way journalists interact with readers. It can open new avenues of communication, give readers a hand in selecting and telling stories, or offer a richer array of first-hand witnesses. ProPublica’s outgoing social media editor Amanda Michel told journalists that using social tools to help people share their experiences has helped the organization establish a more differentiated picture of how policies affect people.

All those things, in the end, lead to better, richer stories that – maybe – come close to that elusive aim: telling stories that reflect the truth.

So try out new things and new tools. Not everything will stick, not everything will be a hit with your audience, and that’s okay. The true art is figuring out how to integrate new ways of storytelling to the advantage of readers and journalists.

Tumblr wants to be “the most interesting party you’ve ever been at”

“I personally think what Tumblr wants to be is the most interesting party you’ve ever been at. That party could have a political discussion in the kitchen or people doing keg stands in the living room, but it’s all about that whole range of human expression.”

Tumblr’s Mark Coatney tells CNNMoney.

He calls news organizations very important to Tumblr’s growth and promises the company will come up with some way to help users make money on their platform, which has eluded them so far.

“The more we can do to figure out how to help people make money of Tumblr, the better,” Coatney says.

Monetizing the platform and helping users measure the impact of their blogs are two key challenges for Tumblr, which just raised $85 million in funding. Tumblr plans to add an analytics dashboard to help users keep track of their stats, Coatney said at an online journalism conference in September. He wouldn’t go into detail on a timeframe, however, saying only that he hopes it will be within a year.

Even without those tools, Tumblr is immensely popular, apparently reaching 13 billion pageviews per month. The interesting question is where these pageviews come from.

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Remember you’re not cool: Seven tips for better interviews

Interviewing people is the most basic part of reporting, but it remains a wonderful opportunity to make a complete idiot out of yourself. Here is some advice four journalists offered “the art of interviewing” at Georgetown University this weekend.

1. Ask basic questions
Jamie Dupree is a proponent of simple questions. When covering Congress for Cox Radio, he says he often asks questions like “What’s this all about?” Getting too detailed allows interviewees to wiggle their way out of a straight-forward answer, he says. Another tip: At the end of the interview, circle back to the basic question you started with. “So, bottom line, this means the bill is dead?” Dupree used as an example. By now, you’ve talked to the person for a couple minutes and you’re both clear on the details, so this question allows them to sum up their position. “They’ll give you a better quote,” Dupree says.

2. Don’t be afraid to tell people what you need
Dupree recalled one female reporter who would tell officials she needed a quote of under 10 second that didn’t use the words “today” or “tomorrow” – it might seem like a bold request, but resulted in great quotes. For less experienced interview subjects, asking someone to answer in complete sentences is just fine, the journalists said.

Photo by Stejahen on Flickr used under Creative Commons.

3. Don’t try to be cool
“It’s not about looking cool,” says Emily Heil, formerly of Roll Call and now at the Washington Post. “We’re not cool. We’re not smarter than the people we interview.”
I love this advice because a) I’m definitely not cool and b) I think journalists sometimes get caught up in the importance of what they cover and think that means they’re important, too. You can tell when an interviewer thinks that because he or she goes on long, detailed monologues that don’t end in actual questions, instead just prodding the subject to acknowledge how smart the interviewer is. In interviews, it’s not about what you know, it’s about what the person you’re talking to thinks.
Accepting that you’re not cool also helps you get over feeling embarassed. Ask that follow-up question when you don’t understand what someone is talking about, Heil says, even if everyone else in the room is nodding knowlingly. It’s just what my professors told me: Never be afraid of looking like an idiot.

4. Know when to talk to someone
All four journalists were adamant about the power of face-to-face interviews. Don’t email questions, they advised. Always seek out personal interactions. For reporters covering Congress, that means staking out at the Capitol, going to politicians’ offices and hearings (at least the latter two can be applied to anything from small town politics to national budget bills).
Ryan Beckwith’s tip: Catch people as they’re leaving a hearing. They may have just had to sit through hours of boring testimony or been berated by officials, which for a reporter means you’ll get a more spontaneous response.
In the same mold, if someone doesn’t want to talk to you, talk to everyone else. Beckwith and Politico’s Reid Epstein used the example of campaign coverage: If the person at the top the polls doesn’t want to answer your question, talk to the candidate who’s trailing – and consequently will be happy for media coverage. Then call the person second-lowest in the polls and tell them their competitor already talked to you. By the time you reach the leader, you’ll have a quote from everyone else and they’ll be much less likely to refuse to comment.

Reporters and cameramen set up at Statuary Hall on the Capitol, where members of Congress will walk through on the way to taking their seats at tonight's State of the Union. (Nina Lincoff/Medill via Flickr)

5. Get your subject in the wild
If you’re writing a portrait or longer story, just following someone around is great research, Heil says. “Think of it as being a narrator on a nature show,” she advised humorously. Heil once visited the wife of Minnesota Senator Al Franken at home to bake apple pie with her. The story, titled “A Franken Finds a Recipe for Success”, describes Frannie Franken busying herself around the kitchen in an apron bearing a Senate seal.
Specifics enrich a story. “Train yourself to look for details,” Heil says. When someone tells you of a past event, ask for those details.
Your subject’s body language and tone of voice provide insight and detail for your story. How does she or he interact with others? “The best quotes are not quotes, the best quotes are dialogue,” Heil said.

6. Let them yell at you
Sometimes you write something that the person you interviewed won’t like. Give them a chance to tell you, said Beckwith, even if that means getting yelled at for five minutes. Why? Because it allows someone to voice their frustration, and then next time you talk to them, you’re starting from a clean slate. Be understanding, but don’t apologize. Any journalist’s best excuse: “My editor made me do it.”

7. Don’t say anything
As I’ve heard before, not asking a question can be the best way to get good answers. People will feel uncomfortable with the silence and start to fill it. This also works if people give very concise answers. Just stop talking, Heil and Dupre said, but look at them expectantly, and they’ll likely elaborate on their statement.

Lastly, sometimes you have to accept that people just don’t want to tell you something, Beckwith said. In that case, not even the most fantastic interviewing skills will elicit an answer.

Best interview technique: Awkward silence

If you keep quiet for long enough, (interview subjects) will almost always start talking. And by then they’re a little nervous, so they often say something interesting.

Megan McArdle, blogger at The Atlantic, explains her favorite interview technique to Fishbowl DC.

She also says the best piece of advice she’s ever received from an editor was not to fall in love with your own writing. That clever figure of speech you really want to include probably is not nearly as clever as you think.

Photo via Smiling_da_vinci on Flickr.

To read Megan’s advice on what to do when an interview tanks, and why you should allow your writing to suck, head over to Fishbowl DC. Journos-in-training, this is one to bookmark.

Five tips for your digital job search

During a job search, how you present yourself to potential employers is incredibly important. With digital tools, you also have a whole other world of networking opportunities — so make sure you take advantage of it! Here are some tips for making the best of social media and your online presence when looking for your next journalism position.

Be present

The basics: Update your profiles across Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Make sure they reflect your skills and interests. Use the same name or acronym across the services so people recognize you. Using the same picture also helps.


You don’t have a blog yet? Get on it! (No, seriously. Do it right now). Starting a blog is incredibly easy, and you will learn a ton. I’m partial to WordPress, but other platforms like Blogger or Tumblr will work well, too.

Find a subject you’re interested in and start writing. Actually, give it some thought first to make sure you find something you’re truly passionate about. Set a goal to post x times a week and stick to it. A month-old post at the top of your site will not leave a good impression.

Having a blog helps you focus on what you want to say about yourself. Filling in your “About” page is an exercise in self-reflection: What am I really all about? What do I want people to know? (Hint: you want to let them know that they can hire you — don’t be afraid to say you’re looking for a job — and why they should).

Ben Balter recently offered some tips on using WordPress to build your personal brand. Link your blog to your social media profiles to make it a one-stop shop. You can also use Flavors to create a central hub of all your profiles. For inspiration, see Kat Downs, who I worked with on a project, or Adam Westbrook, who also wrote a guide for using Flavors to get you started.

Create a digital resume

Now that you’re blogging, it’s time to add some additional pages to your site to let people know about your skills. Admittedly, not all of us can be as awesome as Heather Billings, who made her site a graphic, interactive resume. But at the very least, your site should have a “resume” page with an online and a downloadable version of your resume.

Why both? The online version should include links to your work and the organizations you’ve worked at, and could include details that didn’t make the print version. Again, we turn to Heather, as well as Greg Linch and Anthony DeBarros, for examples.

Actually, hyperlinks aren’t limited to the web version, but I’d recommend using them more sparingly on your print copy (someone might actually print it and then have lots of blue text on the page).

For this download copy, make sure you name the file smartly, e.g. Name_Resume, when you upload it because this name will show up on peoples’ desktop or download folder. Also remember to redact any information, such as address or phone number, that you might not want on the Internet.

Patrick Thornton has additional helpful tips on designing and building your digital resume.

Additional tip: Remember that your website is part of your online resume. As I said above, a blog that’s never updated doesn’t look good. If that’s not your thing, opt for a simple website without the blogging aspect. I highly recommend blogging, though, because it is another way to enter the conversation with other journalists and to keep working on your skills. And if you blog about your area of journalistic expertise, it’s one more way to show a potential employer how awesome you are.

Join groups

Join your alumni group on LinkedIn, as well as other groups that fit your interests. For starters, I’m a German-born digital journalist based in D.C. — lots of areas I can connect with others. Use sites like to find meetings in your area that interest you, and take your networking offline to meet people IRL. The broader your network, the better.

Participate in journalism-centric Twitter chats

It’s networking on Twitter! Join one of the Twitter chats for journalists, like #wjchat, #spjchat, #pubmedia or #journchat. (Not enough hastags? Check out this spreadsheet of weekly Twitter chats.) The chats are usually on the same day of the week and often cover a specific topic. Introduce yourself, ask questions, participate. You’ll learn a lot both about Twitter and about who’s working on what and for whom, what peoples’ interests and expertise are.

Additional tip: Add the chat hashtag search to your Tweetdeck or search the hashtag on the Twitter site every now and then. When people post job alerts interesting to one chat group they often include the hashtag, so make sure you don’t miss those!

Follow journalists who work for organizations you’re interested in

By participating in journalists’ Twitter chats, you will find many people who work for news organizations. Follow them, especially the ones who work somewhere you also want to work. See who they’re talking to, and expand your network. This also keeps you up to date on what the organizations you’re interested in are doing.

You can organize the journalists you follow in a list like I did. Being connected to these people will help you hear about job opportunities before others do.

I actually found out about my new job via Twitter, where Jeff Sonderman posted a tweet late one day that TBD was looking for a web producer. See? It works!

Additional reading

Haven’t had enough? I highly recommend two posts by Alexis Grant, a journo friend of mine who writes career advice for U.S. News and World Report:

13 tips for job hunters – because I’ve been there (she agrees with me that “blog is the new resume”!) and
How to use social media to look for a job

Check out Tracy Boyer’s advice for potential bloggers,Don’t just ‘do it’, before you get started.

If you have additional tips, leave them in the comments. I’d love to hear them!

Meet the Windy City Rollers

If you think roller derby is a girls’ sport, think again. The players in the Windy City Rollers, Chicago’s roller derby league, are tough. Broken collarbones, bruises or challenging strategies don’t keep them from the track. Bork Bork Bork, one of their latest recruits, explains why she spends 10 hours a week on skates.


How does Roller Derby work?

via the Windy City Rollers Web site

Each team has five players on the track: one pivot (who has a stripe on her helmet), three blockers, and one jammer. The jammer is the point scorer for the team.

The blockers from both team form a pack on the track. They start at the first blow of the whistle. When the last pack member crosses the start line, a whistle blows twice, and the jammers take off. Each jammer tries to get through the pack. The players on her team try to make room for her while also blocking the other team’s jammer from getting past them.

The jammer to make it through the pack first becomes the Lead Jammer; she may end the jam at any time by putting her hands on her hips.

After getting past the pack, the jammer makes her way around the track and back to the pack. Now is the time to score.

For each player on the opposing team she passes, her team scores. Again, her team’s blockers help her while also obstructing the other team’s jammer.

A jam is the period of play, and it can last up to two minutes. A jam continues until either the Lead Jammer calls it off or the two minutes expires.  A whistle blows four times when a jam ends.

Find out more about the Windy City Rollers on their Web site.

How to… referee a basketball game

Whether it’s a youth league or the NBA, keeping order on the court is a tough job. But it can also be a lot of fun, says Mike Sitkowski, who has been an intramural basketball referee at Northwestern University for five years.
Here’s the next video in the How To Series: Refereeing a basketball game.


How to… do your make-up

For an exercise in our video storytelling class we had to produce a sequence of an action taking place. Even though it was just an exercise, I think what came of it is a funny, cute little piece so I wanted to share it with you!

Also, Vivi is my go-to expert now for any questions related to make-up.


How to… Vivi’s make-up routine from Jessica B on Vimeo.