When you’re covering the story that everybody is talking about, you need to monitor social media. You want to hear what they’re saying and you want them to be talking about your stories, photos and videos.
My Digital First Media colleagues at the Daily Breeze have illustrated that with their smart use of Facebook in coverage of a landslide along the coast in San Pedro, Calif. Reporter Donna Littlejohn explains:
Ocean cliffs have fallen away before in our port community, colorfully chronicled by the daily newspaper through the decades. But when the latest slide began to slip, it played out most prominently on social media sites.
I got my first tip that something was up from a community member on Facebook. On Sept. 7 she wrote this on my wall: “Donna — someone posted on the San Pedro CA Facebook page that there’s a sink hole starting on Paseo del Mar. I don’t know near what street yet but I’ll pass on any new info.”
My call to the city to follow up brought a response saying only that city engineers were aware of the problem, but they didn’t think it was a sinkhole. They were continuing to monitor it. And what would soon be a very big local story for us was on my radar.
Over the next couple of weeks, I continued to see posts about the road condition worsening. I’ve found that Twitter and Facebook provide me with an excellent barometer of what’s on the minds of our readers, what stories they really care about.
By mid-September, big news: The city closed the road. But it wasn’t a sinkhole. Instead, it was a full-on landslide in progress. What local motorists, our readers, had been saying all this time turned out to be true — this wasn’t just a “settling” of the land as city officials initially thought. Something much bigger was going on literally just below the surface.
From there, Facebook provided me with an opportunity to communicate and stay in the loop with what community members were saying about it all. Many shared their own photos as the area shifted day by day. Interest was high. As we posted links to update stories and photos, community members chimed in with their own observations and information.
One reader emailed us a remarkable 1930s photo of her grandfather standing in a huge trench where the earth had cracked open in an earlier slide in our town. We posted it on the newspaper’s Facebook page.
Within weeks, the land was moving up to 4 inches a day, according to engineers. And then came the rains.
Two Sundays ago, I was on Facebook, wondering the same thing that everyone else posting from the community was wondering: What’s going on with the landslide?
We were on the scene later that day and managed to break the story that a significant portion of the highway collapsing that afternoon. After we got the news up on Twitter, other media joined in — but it was well after we’d already been there.
The next couple days were filled with followup stories and an on-site news conference by Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa who arrived via helicopter.
Sloshing through the mud and dirt that was everywhere amid the broken highway, I tweeted live from the scene throughout, posting both updates and photos on Twitter & Facebook, giving readers the sense of being at the scene in real time.
And it paid off. The photos drew numerous comments and were widely shared, bringing thousands of new readers to the newspaper’s home page for more.
Toni Sciacqua, Managing Editor – Digital at the Daily Breeze, Press-Telegram and Daily News, alerted me to the story in an email:
I wanted to share some information about what’s been happening on the Daily Breeze website in the past couple of days. It gives some insight on how we can grow a very local online audience based on quality local news coverage and smart social networking.
We’ve had incredible numbers on both page views and unique users from the coverage of the landslide in San Pedro. Traffic spikes often happen on a major story, but it usually comes from getting linked from sites such as Google or Drudge.
The difference in this case is that most of the traffic is coming from Facebook. On Sunday evening, as news of the landslide spread, more than 13% of our traffic came in from Facebook. On Monday, it was more than 10%. Usually, it’s under 4%.
For some of that, of course, we can thank Mother Nature. But I don’t think it’s all luck.
We knew the land would fall soon, so we had a breaking news plan in place in advance so that the reporter and photographer would know where to funnel their updates. Photo Editor Chuck Bennett was in the area with a source who gave him access to the site. He also had a helicopter on alert so we’d be the first with aerial pics in the morning.
All of that could have sat on our site unnoticed on a low-traffic Sunday evening, but because of Donna Littlejohn laid the groundwork with her social network, word spread quickly and traffic started pouring into our site.
Donna, the reporter who has been covering the story since the ground starting shifting a couple of months ago, has been cultivating her social network for a long while now. Anyone who was plugged in knew she was the definitive source for information about the slide. Look back over the tweets she’s been sending over the past few weeks. She also got users thinking about landslides on our Facebook page in advance with a user-submitted photo and a question that was shared 13 times and “liked” 15 times, and generated a lot of new fans. Donna was also able to leverage her Twitter network to get info from sources who might have otherwise been difficult to reach on a Sunday night.
It was a great team effort that is now paying off with a deluge of very local readers, who we hope will continue to use us as their news source now that they’ve seen the kind of work we do. This is how you grow a local online audience using your social media network.
BTW, I saw this story from NYT via Poynter about how the six degrees of separation theory has been trimmed to four with the advent of Facebook. That means your story has the potential to reach anyone in the world through just four shares. That’s quite a concept to ponder.
Indeed. Thanks to Toni and Donna for showing the value of Facebook and Twitter as tools for reporting and community engagement.