Tone in social media for news organizations

A disclaimer: Although I write often on this blog about my work at The Palm Beach Post, this is a personal blog and the opinions I express are my own, not my employer’s.

In a shift that’s still relatively new territory for journalism, many newsrooms are learning how to adapt to the customs of social media by adopting a tone on Facebook, Twitter and other sites that’s has more personality and flavor than traditional print or even web homepage teases.

It’s tricky because some readers are delighted by social-media personality by a corporate brand, while others are taken aback by it.

Colonel TribuneOne of the innovators of the “personality” trend was The Chicago Tribune back in 2008 when it rolled out the Colonel Tribune character, “a more gentlemanly version of @ChicagoTribune” who continues to tweet as @ColonelTribune with 840,000+ followers.

Daniel Honigman, a onetime reporter who created the Colonel by modeling him on former editor Robert McCormick, told that he “wanted to make Tribune’s Twitter presence more personal — something that people could connect with. ‘The Colonel is a voice. People like that because it really turns you into a person and not an institution.'”

The Colonel is known for his dry wit, as in this recent tweet about a Chicago development gone bad:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s main Twitter account, @ajc, is also known for being funny – at times to the point of snarkiness.

Followers “love it,” says Allison Fabella, the AJC‘s senior producer for SEO/social media/metrics. “They eat it up.”

Fabella, who oversees a team of tweeters for the @ajc account, mostly a core group of five, says: “I’m more conservative, and every time someone tweets something along those lines, I get a little nervous, but our followers really enjoy it.”

AJC newsroom social media users have had full support from Editor Julia Wallace (recently promoted to senior vice president for Cox Media Group in Ohio).

Fabella doesn’t think wit should be forced. That the conversational styles of the paper’s 80 or so Twitter accounts run the gamut from straightforward to the edge of @ajc and celeb/society account @ajcbuzz.

The Austin American Statesman keeps it light and funny from time to time on @statesman, too.

This off-the-cuff remark was retweeted more than 200 times:

Other examples:

“I try to have fun all the time,” says Robert Quigley, the Statesman’s social media editor. “It’s the medium.”

At The Palm Beach Post, as social media editor, I’m the main person posting to our Facebook wall, and one of the main tweeters for @pbpost, during the regular working week.

Though I’ve been immersed in social media since 2002 beginning with LiveJournal, and I’ve worked at daily newspapers since 1996, I still find some aspects of blending social media and journalism challenging at times.

I like trying to be offbeat and amusing when I’m the voice behind our main social media accounts, when it seems right to do so. For instance, when our followers voice complaints about us, as long as the situation is not too serious, I often respond with a joke. They usually lighten up and joke back, and perhaps I’ve helped turn a grouchy reader into a more loyal Palm Beach Post fan.

Here’s one exchange from September. This Facebook fan, Terry, continues to be an active commenter on our wall.

Here’s another from when I tried in vain to get some user-submitted photos on a very slow news day:

Gently ribbing people about tweetups and fashion photo galleries is one thing, but when the news turns serious, a lighthearted tone can be taken as flippant.

In one such post, I lightly mocked Palm Beach County‘s history of elections foul-ups:

A couple of reporters said that tone undermined our fairness and wondered why our main Facebook could say something like that, yet a political reporter for The Post couldn’t.

I definitely see that perspective. After giving it some thought and talking it over with others, here’s my takeaway: We wouldn’t be snarky or sarcastic if this election snafu had been a rare occurrence. But Palm Beach County, by now, has developed a worldwide reputation for this.

As my boss, Digital Manager Clay Clifton, put it: “Certainly that comment wouldn’t be appropriate in a print or Web headline, but as part of a Facebook tease, a little personality (sarcasm included) is a good thing. In a county with such a rich history of electoral incompetence, it’s not inappropriate to poke a little fun on Twitter or Facebook.”

That said, I still think the classic journalism rule applies: I wouldn’t feel comfortable with an individual political reporter posting something snarky about a Post elections story on her or her social media accounts.

The most controversial example we’ve dealt with so far in The Post newsroom was one I’m going to end this post with. When I posted this on Facebook from home on a Sunday morning, I was excited about the story and proud of The Post for the type of strong journalism we are – or at least should be – known for.

It’s long been an ongoing focus of mine to use social media to see if solid pieces like this – local, investigative and enterprise – can go viral, as opposed to some of the lighter and goofier articles that often end up getting a lot of traffic. That was my mindset when writing this Facebook post. But the wording drew a couple of complaints from within the newsroom that it makes The Post appear biased. I can see that point of view.

What do you think?


Filed under Facebook, Social media, Twitter

9 responses to “Tone in social media for news organizations

  1. Pingback: Human response disarms negative online commenters, tweeters | Web Up the Newsroom

  2. Pingback: Web Up the Newsroom

  3. However, when I initially developed Colonel Tribune, I wrote out a very long persona for it. We got very granular with it, and it helped define the voice in the long run.

    It’s a traditional exercise for agency professionals and teams that work on client projects; I had written an article on personas before I joined the Tribune, and thought it would be a good opportunity to take a stab at one.

  4. That’s a great point, Paul. I remember bouncing a lot of potential headlines/tweets off of the reporters around me, as well as the reporters (and occasionally the editors; it’s good to be a bit irreverent) who worked on the stories. Always good to get a second or third opinion.

  5. Great post; it’s like we’re sharing the same thoughts (or something).

    Seriously, though, I run into these conundrums all the time. The worst was probably on Election Day, when everything I did was biased one way or another.

    I really like the ability to be humorous and/or snarky at times, but one of the things I’ve found is that if I’m not extremely well read on whatever I’m mocking, my followers will jump all over me in no time flat. The last thing I want to do is spend a half hour debating what should or shouldn’t have been a joke with my Twitter crowd.

    To close out, here’s a question: Do you think there’s an issue of frequency, in terms of how often your Twitter account should come across as funny/snarky/etc.? Or do you think it’s just situational (i.e. serious news vs. slow-news-day)?

    • Thanks, Paul, for the feedback and for sharing your experiences.

      As far as frequency, I think it’s different on Twitter and Facebook. I think of Twitter – and use this phrase frequently – as a river of information that people occasionally dip their cups into. For most people, it’s too vast to read every tweet. So you can get away with posting more, including more lighthearted stuff.

      My philosophy on Facebook is to post very selectively in general. This runs counter to one school of thought. Posting conversationally in tone, always. But posting humor or snark, I’d do it rarely. I would hate for it to feel forced.

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