By Nikki Zambon
Rachel Leathe developed a love for photography at a young age when her father taught her basic techniques. Her admiration for the craft deepened when she entered high school in Great Falls and had access to a dark room to develop photographs. She went on to study photojournalism at the University of Montana, where she received her degree in 2014.
She was hired by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in 2015 as a staff photographer and now works as Chief Visual Journalist. She also runs the Chronicle’s Instagram account with her co-worker, Sam Wilson. The Chronicle’s Instagram has 14,600 followers. The Chronicle’s other main platforms, Facebook and Twitter, have 52,207 followers and 20,800 followers, respectively.
Leathe recently answered J-School student Nikki Zambon’s questions over email and the following is a transcript of their conversation, edited slightly for clarity.
Q: How involved are you in social media at the Chronicle? Is there anyone hired solely for the purpose of social media management?
A: I run the Chronicle’s Instagram account with a fellow Chronicle photographer, Sam Wilson. We don’t have anyone whose sole job is to handle the social media accounts. But the City Editor is generally responsible for posting on Facebook and Twitter. He also tries to do a daily Instagram story, Monday through Friday.
Q: Did you anticipate needing to have social media skills going into this job? Should others when they head into the journalism workforce?
A: I don’t think it was such an emphasis when I was in school. If anything, I think Twitter was the biggest tool for journalists at the time. Now, I would say that you definitely need to have an understanding of social media. Whether or not you actively engage with social media, I think you need to be aware of how it functions in society. A lot of tips, sources and story ideas can be found on social media, as well as entire careers managing social media accounts for larger journalism enterprises.
Q: Do you have your own social platform aside from your work? Do you use it for personal or professional purposes? Both?
A: As a photojournalist, I think it’s vital to have an Instagram account. It’s a great way to connect with photo editors and show your work. In a way, Instagram has become the new online portfolio. You are doing yourself a huge disservice by not having one. From what I’ve seen, most photojournalists have one account that’s a blend of personal and professional content. I also only have one account. I tend to post a mixture of things I shoot for the paper and personal projects that I’m working on. Most editors are interested in seeing your personal work along with straight editorial stories.
Q: Is it possible to keep your personal accounts and perspectives separate from your professional life?
A: I think that line is a lot more blurry than it was ten years ago. I have a personal Facebook account from high school that’s somewhat hidden and private and difficult for the general public to find. My Instagram and Twitter accounts are public-facing, but I really only post to Instagram with any regularity.
When I’m posting on Instagram, I try to picture the folks who are going to see it. Would I tell a potential boss the thing that I am about to post? Would I be embarrassed if they saw the post? If it’s something I would be embarrassed for a boss or for a person reading the paper to see, then I don’t post it. I will post more personal things in my story in the private setting if it’s something I want to share with my close friends, but not the general public. That’s a nice feature that Instagram added that allows you to have public and private aspects on a public account.
But I do think that people are becoming more lenient and accepting of folks sharing very personal content on their professional accounts. In some ways, I think that helps humanize journalists. But if you’re going to go that route, you have to be very careful with your tone and be willing to defend yourself publicly over your posts. I think that strategy works best for freelancers who are trying to connect with their audience or give potential clients an idea of who they are. I don’t know if it’s the best idea for a photojournalist working at a paper. We deal with so many different types of people every day that I would hate to ostracize someone or turn them against the paper over a personal post.
I personally avoid posting very personal things on the internet anymore. I also never post about politics or controversial issues, especially if it’s something I’m covering. The only time I will post about those kinds of issues is when I’m covering it for the paper and posting on my account in an unbiased fashion, as in trying to inform people on an issue instead of trying to persuade them one way or another.
Q: What’s your favorite platform and how do you cater your content to different platforms?
A: Instagram is definitely my favorite. I feel like people are more supportive than combative there. On Twitter I’m mainly a voyeur, using it to see what’s going on in Montana politics and journalism. Facebook, I barely use at all, except to keep in touch with old friends or to post photo galleries on the Chronicle’s page.
Q: How do you decide the voice of the publication you work for?
A: When I first started at the Chronicle, I studied the work of the people who came before me and tried to make sure I was living up to those standards. It helped that I had interned under them before I became the Chronicle’s staff photographer, so I was able to ask them questions and meet up to have them look at my work from time to time. Other than that, I would just say reading the paper is incredibly important. You have to know what’s going on in the community to be able to cover it.
Q: Have you ever received negative comments on social media, and if so, how did you handle them?
A: I think a thick skin comes with the territory. If it’s a comment that violates our social media code of conduct, then we will remove it. But otherwise, we usually let it be. If the comment contains incorrect facts or a question, we will usually respond with the correct information. But most times we just let the comment stand.
Nine times out of ten, someone else will come into the comments and defend the Chronicle. So usually it works itself out in the end.
Q: Do you ever need to make editorial corrections on posts?
A: Sometimes, but it’s pretty rare.
Q: How do you stay neutral but also share opinions on social media as a journalist?
A: I try my hardest not to share my opinion on social media. I will share the facts of an issue but I will not offer my opinion.
Q: Do you have any advice for young journalists coming into the workforce where social media skills are becoming more important and widespread?
A: I would advise them to be careful what they post on the internet, but also not be so careful that they don’t build any type of social media following. Knowledge and background in social media is a good skill set to have coming into the journalism world. At this point, social media is pretty ingrained in society. You may as well understand it, even if you don’t agree with it.
Nikki Zambon 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.