Bob Turner, my first city editor, didn’t do social media. His heyday as a journalist was in the 1950s through 1980s, and he was more comfortable with a typewriter than a computer. (When I moved into his old desk at The Tampa Times, I had to switch things around so that I faced the computer terminal instead of the old typewriter.)
But if Bob were a reporter now, I think he would embrace social media – mostly because it would expand the number of sources he could talk with.
The most lasting lesson I learned from Bubba (The affectionate name he bestowed on others became his own nickname) was thoroughness. Bob taught that in an interview, a reporter should ask enough questions that he or she fully understood the source’s position and couldn’t possibly get it wrong.
A corollary of that is: Talk with as many people as possible to make sure you get a well-rounded view of your topic.
It was clear Bubba talked with a lot of folks. Whenever I met long-time Tampa residents from all walks of life, they often knew Bob and remembered conversations with him. He had bottomless curiosity and a way of asking questions that made you feel like an absolute authority.
Nowadays reporters with Turner-like curiosity use social media to listen to the community and discover what people are talking about. One phrase for it is “social media curation,” which became a buzzword last year. It isn’t really new. Some journalists have been doing it in ways as simple as retweeting others at the same event or adding social media posts to live chats hosted on newspaper websites.
I used Storify on Sunday to share photos and videos taken when the moving of a landmark house became a public spectacle attracting hundreds of onlookers. The house itself was well-known around town both because of its prominent location and its succession of residents variously famous and infamous locally.
It had been been awhile since I used Storify to curate local news – the last time was a series of tornadoes in 2011 – so I learned a few things this time. Here are some of the lessons:
- Chronology counts. Unless you have a good reason to do otherwise, tell the story in chronological order. This may seem self-evident, but I recently saw a Storify account of a news event that started at the end and worked backwards, like a Twitter feed. One of the advantages of a tool like Storify is that you can subvert that social media convention.
- Witness the event, if possible. I saw and photographed the house in two different locations during a long walk. It helped to get some perspective and to be able to talk with other observers. Plus I was glad I had my own photo to use as the main image when I put my Storify collection on my blog.
- Immediacy matters. Record as many impressions as possible while the event is happening. Because of a full schedule, I didn’t start my curation until late afternoon; by then some of the posts I’d seen on Facebook in the morning were hard to find. At the same time:
- Continue curating. You can add more content later. If I had posted my story in the early afternoon and not checked for newer posts, I would have missed the remarkable aerial videos that became available.
- Seek diverse viewpoints. (This is important if you’re committing an act of journalism; it won’t seem as necessary if you are using social media to promote a brand.) While most of the posts Sunday focused on the coolness and weirdness of seeing an architectural landmark in the middle of the street, a few people expressed contrarian views. One photographer I encountered along the way showed me a picture on his camera that I would have liked to include. It showed a sign complaining of harm to a grand old oak that was trimmed severely to make way for the house move. I wasn’t able to find a photo of the sign online, so I couldn’t use it for my curated story.
- Respect privacy settings. One of the contrarian posts I wanted to use was from a friend who said in essence that the moving of power lines to let the house proceed down Florida Avenue caused him to lose electricity. I was going to use that post, but his Facebook privacy settings prevented it from displaying in Storify. There were work-arounds, but his privacy settings were more important than showing the picture. (There are breaking news stories where newsworthiness will prevail, and case law generally supports publication.)
- Find the original post. When possible, choose the original post rather than a version that was retweeted or shared by someone else – unless the retweet/share includes a comment that adds value or meaning.
- Hashtags help. In this case, the event organizers established the hashtag #savethetudor. That helped me find a lot of photos on Instagram. However, don’t rely solely on hashtags because you’ll miss a lot of good posts.
- Don’t fear the man. My main purpose was to show posts from regular folks, but it helped to include an article from The Ledger for background, and some of the best photos came from galleries posted by the City of Lakeland and The Ledger.
- Add explanatory text. Storify lets you insert text above posts, so you’re able to add perspective or explain why an items is included.
Social media made very little impact on journalism in Bob Turner’s lifetime. He left us in December 2007. If he were still around, it would be hard to get him to put down his dictionaries – he read them, cover to cover – and look at Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. But I’d like to think that once he did, he’d realize that these popular sites give journalists more tools to monitor their communities, discover new voices and participate in more conversations. Those are things Bob could relate to.