Opinion engagement using social media

As the Salt Lake Tribune demonstrates, Pinterest is just one of several social media platforms that are being used to enhance and extend engagement in opinion journalism.
As the Salt Lake Tribune demonstrates, Pinterest is just one of several social media platforms that are being used to enhance and extend engagement in opinion journalism.

A group of Digital First Media journalists have been discussing several aspects of opinion journalism this year. This is the first in a series of posts sharing the group’s advice to Digital First newsrooms, opinion pages and individual journalists. The group members are listed at the end of this post. 

Opinions are an important and vibrant part of social media, and DFM opinion journalism efforts need to make effective and extensive use of social media. To guide these efforts, we present a few general principles and some specific recommendations:

Principles

Social media are as important a platform for opinion journalism as print editorial pages and opinion sections of news websites and apps.

Social media conversation should both precede and follow publication of editorials.

Columnists, bloggers, cartoonists and other staff members producing personal opinion journalism should use social media effectively.

We can and should use social media to drive traffic to opinion content on our websites and apps, but we should use social media at least as much for conversation.

We should join conversations in social media, as well as seeking to lead and host conversations.

We should respect all opinions that are expressed respectfully. We should model civility in community conversation. We should firmly but civilly reject hateful expressions of opinion in all contexts, even when we agree with the underlying opinions.

Recommendations

At this point, Facebook and Twitter appear to be the most effective social networks for opinion journalism. But we certainly should explore the use of other social tools:

  • YouTube may be a good tool for soliciting and sharing staff and community opinion videos.
  • We should post opinion content on Google+ for its search value (and engage in conversations if any develop there). G+ also might be useful for opinion-related Hangouts (possibly livestreamed and embedded on our sites using YouTube).
  • Pinterest might be an effective way to distribute editorial cartoons and other visual opinion content.
  • Opinion journalists should experiment with new social tools.

DFM editorial boards should seek input on social media before writing editorials and use social media to start conversations after publication of editorials. Here’s a sample scenario for such conversation:

Your community is having a bond-issue election for the construction of a new high school. About a week before the editorial board is going to consider its position on the matter, you solicit community opinions through social media in a variety of ways.

1st  tweet: Planning editorial soon: Should DFMtown borrow $12 million to build a new high school south of town? Why or why not? #dfmbonds

2nd tweet, linking to best news story: Background on DFMtown high-school bond issue: bit.ly/123dfm Should editorial support or oppose? #dfmbonds

The Facebook update (and Google+ post): We’re going to be writing an editorial soon on the Nov. 6 bond election for a new high high school south of DFMtown. How do you plan to vote and why? The $12 million in bonds would raise the property taxes by $100 a year for the owner of a home valued at $100,000. Supporters say the old school is unsafe, overcrowded and outdated. Opponents say the tax-increase is too steep. What do you think? bit.ly/123dfm

(Rather than posting as an update, you might post an image, such as a photo of the current school, artist’s rendering of the new school or map showing the new school’s location. Images generate stronger engagement than updates, so use that approach if you have a good image to use.)

On the website and in the newspaper, you might publish a similar solicitation, curating some of the responses from social media.

When you publish the editorial, you might accompany it in print and/or online with a curation of the social media responses. You seek to continue the conversation on both platforms:

Tweet: Our view: New $12 million high school is an important investment in DFMtown’s youth: bit.ly/123dfm  What’s your view?

Facebook: We say: DFMtown needs a new high school to replace a building that’s unsafe for students and not equipped for 21st-century. The portable classes used to relieve crowding at the current school are not a suitable environment for education. If DFMtown is going to grow and attract families and industry, voters need to approve this reasonable investment. bit.ly/123dfm LIKE this if you agree with our editorial. If you disagree, tell us in the comments why you’re voting against the bond issue.

Again, if you generate a good discussion, you should curate the responses from Twitter and/or Facebook for the website and/or op-ed page.

On YouTube and your website, you post a video editorial. You invite video responses and post those on your site.

If community interest in the bond issue is especially intense, you might host a live chat on Twitter (remember to use a hashtag such as #dfmschoolchat) or Facebook (or ScribbleLive). You can host the chat and just discuss with the community. Or you can interview a guest (or people on opposing sides of an issue), inviting the public to join the discussion.

Another option would be a live video chat. You could Hangout with leaders of campaigns for and against the bond issue (and invite members of the public who want to join as well to ask questions). You use YouTube to livestream the conversation and embed it on your site.

When a news event provokes strong response, you won’t have time to seek opinions before writing a quick editorial. But you could curate social media opinions to accompany the editorial and invite people to continue the discussion.

Opinion editors also should watch for good opportunities to use tools such as Storify or Reddit to curate opinion content on community topics. A Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) might be a way to host a live chat if Reddit engagement is strong in your community.

Obviously DFM staffs dedicate different levels of resources to opinion journalism, and the resources available will affect how much time we can use in opinion engagement using social media. A newsroom with an opinion editor and some editorial writers and columnists can and should engage more deeply on social media. A top editor who writes editorials and a personal column and blog in addition to running the newsroom cannot be expected to execute the engagement described above for every editorial. But even that editor should use at least a scaled-down version of the scenario above for big community issues.

As newsrooms designate engagement editors or social media editors, we should recognize that they can increase our staff resources for opinion engagement, even in small newsrooms. Opinion engagement should be a significant duty of the engagement editor, so that editor might handle the social media conversation (either sharing the public input with the editor or writing an occasional editorial). Curation of opinion content should certainly be a duty of engagement editors.

If an opinion staff is large enough to provide sufficient social engagement (as the Denver Post does), we recommend creating separate social media accounts or pages for opinion engagement. The experience, content and conversation are different enough from news content that they can generate a strong, focused engagement opportunity (with occasional retweeting or cross-sharing to the main branded account). For smaller staffs that would not be able to generate as much opinion engagement, the practices recommended here should work well from main newsroom accounts.

Please note that all of these recommendations are not focused on driving traffic but driving engagement. They will drive significant traffic (note how often the guidelines suggest including a link to a story or editorial or creating content from social media for the website, whether it’s an embed or a curation). If we follow these suggestions, we will make meaningful contributions to the discussion of community issues as well as driving traffic to our sites.

At the recommendation of the opinion group, I will develop a webinar (or series of webinars) to train DFM journalists in these uses of social media for opinion engagement in the coming year.

These recommendations are the result of meetings by the following Digital First Media journalists (and advisory board members): 

  • Tony Adamis, managing editor of The Daily Freeman in Kingston, N.Y.
  • Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and a member of the DFM Advisory Board
  • Mike Burbach, editor and editorial page editor of the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn.
  • Steve Buttry, Digital First Media digital transformation editor
  • Alicia Caldwell, Denver Post editorial writer
  • Angi Carter, Thunderdome curator (and New Haven Register community engagement editor when the group started our work)
  • Laura Cochran, Thunderdome features editor
  • Jeff Edelstein, Trentonian columnist
  • Mariel Garza, Los Angeles News Group opinion editor
  • Robert Gehrke, Salt Lake Tribune politics and government reporter and blogger
  • Phil Heron, Delaware County Daily Times editor
  • Mandy Jenkins, Thunderdome interactives editor
  • Barbara Marshman, San Jose Mercury News editorial page editor
  • Rick Mills, editor of The Morning Sun in Mt. Pleasant, Mich.
  • Katy Murphy, Oakland Tribune education reporter and blogger
  • Karen Nolan, opinion editor at The Reporter, Vacaville, Calif.
  • Chris O’Brien, San Jose Mercury News columnist (before he moved to the Los Angeles Times)
  • George Pyle, Salt Lake Tribune editorial writer
  • Martin Reynolds, Bay Area News Group senior editor, engagement
  • Jay Rosen, New York University journalism professor and a member of the DFM Advisory Board
  • Robyn Tomlin, Thunderdome editor
  • Troy Turner, Thunderdome news editor (and editor of the Farmington Daily Times in New Mexico when this group started its work)
Steve Buttry

By Steve Buttry

Steve Buttry is Digital Transformation Editor for Digital First Media. He oversees our efforts to transform newsroom operations and culture to more effectively pursue our digital goals. His duties include responsibility for social media and community engagement. He has visited most DFM newsrooms personally, leading workshops and coaching editors and other journalists in following the Digital First approach.

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