By Nicole Garner
It’s become a common practice for journalists to tweet from the field, find sources through social media and engage with audiences through their online profiles. But what happens when you work for a media outlet that doesn’t have a social media presence?
This summer, I interned at WEIU TV, a news station in Charleston, Illinois, which didn’t jump on the social media bandwagon until after I arrived. The news director hadn’t used any form of social media before and was hesitant to start Twitter and Facebook pages for the station (for reasons unknown).
While working for this news station, I began to wonder if Twitter and Facebook are as necessary to news gathering and production processes as some might think. After all, it seems every major media outlet has some kind of social media presence, yet the small station I worked at did not, and functioned just fine. WEIU staffers didn’t miss breaking news, they found unique sources and the station’s audience didn’t question the lack of a Twitter account. WEIU is a multiple-Emmy award winning outlet — and it didn’t manage social media pages.
When I left the station in early August, WEIU had just 19 followers on Twitter after six weeks of having a profile. No matter how many times producers wrote teases into the newscast to visit our Facebook and Twitter pages, or reporters advertised the pages while they were in the field, it seemed the number of followers, retweets or posts viewed on Facebook didn’t increase.
While some news stations might be concerned about a lack of social interaction, WEIU didn’t seem too worried because the station staff understood why it wasn’t picking up followers: audience demographics.
Charleston is home to Eastern Illinois University, home of half the town’s population. During the summer, residency drops from nearly 21,000 to around 9,000 people because college students leave. While WEIU broadcasts to nearly 1 million homes beyond Charleston, most viewers live in rural farming communities, and many towns have fewer than 500 residents.
After spending countless hours outside the station reporting and speaking with other reporters, I began to realize our audience wasn’t made up of 20-somethings who knew how to tweet. Those who watched the 5:30 p.m. daily newscast were middle-aged or older, many working in the farming profession or blue-collar jobs. Interacting with the community and sources made it apparent many of our viewers didn’t have social media accounts, or if they did, they hardly used them.
That audience — which wasn’t Internet-reliant — was the exact reason why WEIU’s social media pages weren’t being sought after or put to use.
WEIU is a fully functioning and competitive station, with or without the use of Twitter and Facebook. I’m glad to say I worked on stories competing stations hadn’t picked up on, and I credit that to being extremely involved in the community, even without the use of social media.
Never once when I was out in the field did interviewees ask about a way to follow or find us online; sources always asked what time the newscast would air. For the small central-Illinois station, not maintaining an online presence isn’t detrimental to its success.
Although I sometimes found working at a station which wasn’t reliant on its social media-sites frustrating (it was one less avenue for finding sources), it was also refreshing. I spent more time in the field building relationships during reporting than doing so with a keyboard afterward. I was able to become part of the community instead of staying distant, which helped me find stories and know where to turn for answers or interviews.
Don’t get me wrong: Social media is a great tool for journalists. I love using Twitter or Facebook to scope out sources and stories. But social media isn’t always an applicable tool, and it can’t beat the oldest skill in our journalism toolboxes: heading out and interacting face to face.
Do you think journalists are beginning to rely too heavily on social media, instead of old-fashioned relationships? Join the discussion!