We talk to Sarah Millar, the new social media and community editor at OpenFile, about her move from the Toronto Star’s digital team to the collaborative-based startup, why social media excites her and how journalists and editors can use the Internet better.
J-Source: You spent just over a year at the Toronto Star, as both their web editor and social media editor, and are just starting at OpenFile in the brand new position of social media and community editor. What made you want to specialize in the social media side of things?
Sarah Millar: What really excites me in regards to social media is the relationship factor. Suddenly, we are living in a world where you can interact with almost anyone in a way that 10, 20, 30 years ago would have seem impossible.
For example, I remember writing fan letters to celebrities when I was younger. Now, I can tweet them. And what's really great is when they reply to your tweet, so you know they've read it.
I think that presents a great opportunity for journalists. It used to be the media broadcasted the news. They told us what to watch, what to read and what to think. But now, the news is more about a conversation between readers and reporters. That's really exciting. I believe you can learn a lot from the people who follow you, read you or "like" you.
J-Source: OpenFile is built on the idea that communities are a catalyst for good journalism; their model is inherently interactive. On your first day, you gave a shout-out online, asking people for their input on how you should run things. What sort of feedback did you receive?
SM: The feedback was slow, after all it was just my first day!
I think people want to know there's a face behind the Twitter or Facebook account. That it's not just a bot and it doesn't just exist to pump out an organization's content. Social media is all about relationships. And while people want to associate with a brand, they want to associate with the person behind the brand as well. I think that's really important.
J-Source: Some news organizations use their Twitter feed more like an RSS feed while others are much more interactive with their audience. For you, what role does social media play in developing and promoting a story?
SM: Social media plays a huge role and I think a number of journalists are still not using these tools to their full advantages. In developing a story, social media sites such as Twitter, can help you find sources that you might otherwise not have found. The power of a retweet can be phenomenal as your request bounces from network to network to network.
However, it is important to remember, like with any other source, it is important for journalists to vet the information and sources they find on these sites.
As for promoting, it's my experience that journalists who already exist in the space see more success when it comes to promotion. It's great when journalists join the conversation online, instead of being passive and just pumping out links to their own work.
J-Source: Talk to us about packaging a story for online. How can journalists and editors do this more effectively?
SM: Two of the biggest things that many people miss are art and hyperlinks. Pictures work really well online, people like them, put them in your story.
Hyperlinks make storytelling easier. Instead of explaining to your reader the entire back-story to something, you can simply link to it when you reference it. Some companies fear that linking away from their site is bad, but I'm of the mindset that if you send people out to good content, they will begin to consider you a trusted source and return to you more.
And of course it's important to think socially. Do you want reader response? Ask for it. Are you working on a series? Perhaps you want to consider coming up with a Twitter hashtag for people to discuss it on Twitter with. These are things that need to be done before a piece goes online.
J-Source: What is one online- or social media-driven piece that you think every journalist should see/read/listen to and learn from?
SM: That's a tough question. It's hard to think of the best thing journalists should read, so maybe I'll suggest what I'm currently reading: Public Parts by Jeff Jarvis. I'm halfway through it and it really lays out the debate of living publicly vs. privately (something many journalists and media organizations are currently dealing with) very well.