By Brooklyn Grubbs

Joshua Burnham is the digital editor at Montana Public Radio. He manages the station’s social media pages, website, podcasts and email newsletters.

Burnham recently answered emails from UM student Brooklyn Grubbs about how he uses social media in his work. Below is a transcript of their conversation, edited slightly for clarity.

Q: How do you keep your personal interests, opinions and biases from intersecting with the interests of running a social media page? How do you choose what other pages to interact with?

A: Everything you do on social media has to be guided by your organization’s mission and an understanding of the audience you’re trying to serve. Those are the guardrails you have to maneuver between, and they’ll be different depending on where you work.

What I always tell the reporters is to behave like a journalist on social media. It’s ok if some personality comes through. I can express an opinion about things like proposed state flag redesigns, or daylight saving time, or the best beer in the state, without sacrificing any journalistic integrity. Part of what you have to do on social media is to be social and build relationships, and nobody wants to build a relationship with a bot. Just stay between those guardrails.

I don’t really have any method for deciding what pages to interact with. I’ll tag and share things posted by shows or podcasts we run. We collaborate with other news organizations, so I’ll interact with them. When someone publishes something good about us, I’ll share or comment. And on Twitter, I’ll share any piece of Montana news important to our audience that we’re not covering. But, again, within those guardrails.

Q: In terms of audience interaction and engagement, is there any type of strategy to building up a social media page? Or building a consistent, loyal following?

A: You have to give to receive. At the core, you have to consistently deliver value to your audience. That requires a clear understanding of your message, market and medium, and how they’re intertwined.

What are you trying to accomplish? What message are you trying to deliver? Of all the distractions online, why should your target audience care about what you’re saying? What methods do you want to use to communicate your message?

Who are you trying to talk to? Be as specific as possible. What do they expect from you? What do they want or need in their lives? When do they look at social media? How do they talk? Where do they hang out?

How are you going to reach the audience? What platforms do they use most? What platforms are the best fit for the way you communicate your particular message? Are you sharing links or gifs or images or videos?

You have to know a little about each of these to get going. But once the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place, you’ll have a good feel for what you can do to deliver value to your target audience and keep them coming back. It’s a constant process of refining your message, getting to know your audience better and then trying new ways to reach them.

Q: Do you feel extra pressure to create content that is informational because many people use social media as their only source of news and won’t fact check? What strategies are implemented to ensure that people recognize that this news is legitimate in comparison to other things they may come across on social media?

A: Definitely. We share lots of links to news stories. I always try to consider what someone will take away from a post if they don’t click the link. That means making sure you don’t give the wrong impression about a story or simplify your text blurb too much, or that the image doesn’t mislead. It also means trying to put the important things early in the headline where they won’t get cut off. Sometimes you can tell a whole news story in a Facebook post or even a tweet, and that may be a better way to get the information out.

We try our best to uphold good journalistic practices. I try to jump into the comments now and then to answer questions about journalism and how we work. We try to be transparent. We’ve held open houses to give people a chance to meet us, see what goes into making a newscast and understand we’re humans rather than the faceless enemy of the people. It’s easier to get people to trust you if they know you a little bit.

Q: How do you keep social media engagement consistent? Is it difficult to keep a stable audience on social media?

A: It can be difficult, especially with news. People get news fatigue, election fatigue, COVID-19 fatigue, and they drop out. And there are some news topics that you couldn’t pay people to read about. But it comes back to knowing your audience and what they respond to.

I find it difficult to do enough pure engagement posts. When I’m not asking for them to click a link or do anything, just trying to keep them interested or entertained or thinking about us. It can be hard to come up with good ideas all the time.

Q: What is the main difference between maintaining social media for a publication and maintaining social media for personal or private business use?

A: The main thing is that an organization has a specific mission you’re trying to achieve and a specific audience. And like I said before, you can let some personality come out, but you have to stay between those guardrails.

Q: What are your thoughts on how social media has affected the way that people consume news? How has social media changed the way you or your colleagues write, photograph or record a story?

A: Overall, I think social media has been a net negative when it comes to news. Facebook is probably the biggest incubator of misinformation the world has ever seen. Social media has dramatically cut our attention spans. It’s easy to manipulate and the best information doesn’t necessarily reach your feeds at all. That’s not to say that no good has come from it. But at this point, sorting out the bad from the good requires a level of media literacy that too many people don’t possess.

It’s made us focus more on having strong headlines and ledes; we know that’s all most people will read and people definitely won’t click through without them. For radio, getting good photos is always a challenge. We’re stuck using stock photos more than I’d like. But social media is very visual, so that’s better than no image.

Q: Going through school, did you always know you wanted to work in radio? And in the social media world of journalism? How did your plans change?

A: I had a vague idea that I wanted to work in journalism and I took a few classes, but it wasn’t my major. I studied political science and I got a great education in researching and writing. I’ve always loved writing and imagined being at a newspaper. Working in radio never crossed my mind. And radio news websites weren’t really widespread when I was in school.

When I left school I took a job as a web developer because there were more jobs available and the pay was better than anything in journalism. I did that for about 10 years until I got bored with it, then I started transitioning into freelance editing and web publishing. Eventually, a job opened up as part of an election news collaboration between Montana PBS and Montana Public Radio. Just my luck, they were looking for someone who knew something about politics, web development, writing and editing and managing a website. That’s where I started in journalism. At that point, social media was only a small part of what I did. Now, it’s grown to a big chunk of my day. Maybe half the journalists I know got there after the same kind of circuitous route.

Brooklyn Grubbs is a student in the UM School of Journalism’s Social Media and Engagement class, which conducted Q&As this semester with more than 20 journalists as part of a research project on best practices for journalists on social media.

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