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Post-Dispatch uses social media to spread news, interact with readers

July 6, 2011

Erica Smith, news designer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Cole Claybourn
Western Kentucky University

Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook were created to make it easier for people to communicate.

Erica Smith, the social media editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has taken that notion and brought it her job.

Smith spoke to journalists at the Mid-America Press Institute’s “Covering Sports Today and Tomorrow” seminar in St. Louis on June 27.

“Social media is about engaging and being active with people,” Smith said. “At the Post-Dispatch, we interact with our followers and it helps build our fan base.”

Smith, who is the brains behind the Post-Dispatch’s popular Weatherbird Twitter account, talked about how communicating with her followers has helped build a trusting relationship with them.

They get the sense that people are hearing what they’re saying, or in this case, seeing their tweets.  She said while news organizations need to maintain a high level of professionalism, there’s nothing wrong with readers seeing that there is in fact human being behind that account.

“It’s not beneficial to be a Twitter account that just shouts headlines at people,” she said.

The Weatherbird account actually follows more people than they have following them – something readers would be hard-pressed to find with any other news organization.

Smith said once someone follows them, she immediately follows them back and thanks them for following the Weatherbird account.

She said it’s that transparency that helps with engaging readers. If readers sense that a certain Twitter account is just there to spout off headlines, readers are far less likely to pay attention to it, she said.

Smith didn’t stop there when talking about the benefits of Twitter. She said she spends almost her entire day on social media, for several reasons.

The main reason is that it allows her to distribute information anywhere, at any time.

“I can sit on my couch and still send a tweet out and inform thousands of people,” she said.

The best times to reach a large number of people with social media, Smith said, are 6 p.m. during the middle of the week for Twitter, and noon on Saturdays for Facebook.

Some news organizations, such as ESPN, say they don’t break news on Twitter with simply a tweet, rather linking to their Web site with the breaking news item.

Smith said at the Post-Dispatch, it depends on the circumstance.

“The obvious goal is to get people to the site,” she said. “But sometimes we’ll tweet news and follow up on it on our site later.”

Smith didn’t ignore the dangers that come with social media. She admitted that it’s a dangerous place for rumors to be picked up and spread to a large number of people.

She urged those in attendance to watch what they tweet and to not do anything that could end up getting them in trouble.

“Just be smart,” she said.

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