Three social media takeaways for the (very) small newsroom

Anna Kohls, Courtney Manning, Collin Krabbe and Marlee Baldridge

An instruction manual prepared by Missouri School of Journalism students Anna Kohls, Courtney Manning, Collin Krabbe and Marlee Baldridge for the staff of the Berkshire Edge as part of the students’ capstone project.

A style guide for the Berkshire Edge’s social media efforts created by Missouri School of Journalism students Anna Kohls, Courtney Manning, Collin Krabbe and Marlee Baldridge as part of their capstone project.

There are hundreds of different projects happening at the same time in our industry that have the sole purpose of helping news outlets increase reader engagement: how to use Twitter more effectively, tutorials on the latest Google News Initiative tools and experiments on innovative ways to generate revenue. What’s not often talked about are the smaller local papers and blogs that have no idea how to get started with the transition to social media in the first place.

This was exactly what our capstone project with The Berkshire Edge became. The Edge’s Marcie Setlow and David Scribner are two experienced writers who were not so experienced with social media. They stand nearly alone in their corner of Massachusetts as a source for comprehensive coverage of local arts and culture. Their real estate section (the draw for more consistent traffic over the winter months when the Berkshires lose their summer population) was struggling to maintain regular engagement and they also wanted to promote the underutilized calendar section.

After sixteen weeks working closely with the Edge through weekly meetings and hour-long training sessions on Hootsuite, Instagram and Canva, here are the lessons our Berkshire Edge student capstone team learned while developing a social strategy for a newsroom of two.

Our three takeaways:

  1. Time is money. And don’t forget it. Just because a service or piece of software is free doesn’t mean that it’s cost-effective for a smaller newsroom to use. Profit margins are so small and running an effective news service is so labor-intensive that time can quite literally translate into dollars. Taking four hours from a work day to learn a new program translates into four hours of product not being pushed to viewers and readers. This might mean an article about the Little League game isn’t written, or a video isn’t produced, which costs the newspaper clicks.
  2. It is one thing to find resources, it is another to find sustainable ones. While free iPhone apps like Videoleap or Adobe Spark allow users to create usable social videos, this was beyond the ken of Marcie and David. They are still mastering Instagram. Facebook Live videos, on the other hand, which can occur at the press of a button and are automatically hosted on Facebook for free, were much more doable in the long term.
  3. Understanding brand consistency for a small news outlet. Building your brand is key, especially when competing against a larger news organization (such as The Berkshire Eagle). Marcie and David emphasized that content posted on their site needs to reflect their overall brand, including specific details such as color. One of the reasons smaller news outlets are able to compete against larger organizations is because their content is consistent with their brand and appeals to their audience, and they are able to create a whole character for their newsroom. [Download an example of a style guide here.]

The team knows there are many newsrooms across the country that face similar limitations. As programs like Project Facet and SRCCON bring more attention to the importance of collaboration between big and small newsrooms, learning curves like this one will be more common. When these lessons can be learned ahead of collaboration, this makes room for more of what’s really important: great reporting.


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