By Caven Wade

Skylar Rispens began her journalism career at the University of Montana. She majored in journalism, and shortly after graduating in May of 2019 got a job offer to work for the Great Falls Tribune where she covered sports, breaking news, and education. In 2021 she moved to the Missoulian where she covers the education beat. Rispens uses Twitter professionally to live-tweet meetings and share other valuable information like her stories and other exciting news. She has 2,306 followers on Twitter and is only looking to grow in the coming years. UM student Caven Wade had a chance to discuss over email the use of social media in journalism with Skylar. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, edited lightly for brevity and clarity.

Rispens while she was a student at the University of Montana School of Journalism. File photo by Jiakai Lou. 

Q: What’s your favorite social media platform to use, and do you cater your posts differently for your different accounts?

A: When I previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune I did a lot more photography work than I do for the Missoulian, so when I was there I used my professional Instagram account more frequently. I have since made that a private account and I haven’t posted to it since December 2020.

For most of my journalism education and career I’ve preferred using Twitter. I enjoy how quick it is to get little bites of information out to people in our community, Montana and beyond. However, I also love a good Twitter thread while I’m covering a particularly juicy public meeting — especially during the pandemic. I noticed that a lot of people in the community were actually reading them and felt it was a great way to keep people connected during fully virtual meetings. I also do like to post a few things that showcase more of my personality and life outside of work so that people know I am a human out in their community.

I am interested in restarting my journalism Instagram account though I’m not exactly sure what that will look like. I used to have a professional Facebook page, but that never got much traction so I deactivated it.

Q: When you originally got into journalism did you expect social media to play as big of a role as it has?

A: I don’t think it was something I had a great grasp on in a professional sense, but all of my professors encouraged us to use Twitter and other social media platforms to share our work. However, it certainly didn’t come as much of a surprise how integral social media is in news media. I started my Twitter account when I was a student at the J-School and grew my audience organically (with particularly large following gains coming after popular meeting threads).

Q: How do you keep a healthy balance between posting strictly news, but then adding your own flair to stories or posts?

A: This is still one I’m struggling with honestly. I have a pretty sarcastic and dry sense of humor, and I do try to show that when appropriate on Twitter. I tend to stray away from offering commentary on polarizing topics, but I do like to call it as I see it every once in a while. I’ve learned that I have a knack for creating library-news related memes, which seem to go over pretty well.

All in all, I like to show my personality because I think it helps build trust with people while also making my account a little more entertaining. At the end of the day, I’m a person who people should expect to get solid information from, not a stand-up comedian.

Q: What kinds of posts are often the most popular for you?

A: Honestly, my threads seem to get the best traction when I do them. As I’m adding to them I noticed followers reply to individual tweets as the meeting goes on, which increases my engagement overall. I haven’t been as thread-heavy as I was a year ago, but my more personal Tweets also seem to get a lot of attention.

Q: How do you maintain the ability to use social media privately, while also using it as an outreach for your news company?

A: In order to manage that balance I have way too many accounts and email addresses. All of my strictly personal accounts are locked down pretty tightly. My personal Instagram is also private. Because I primarily use Twitter as my professional social media platform it has been pretty manageable to maintain that balance.

Q: Have you ever made a mistake on social media, and how did you handle it?

A:*knocks on wood* I haven’t done anything to get too much heat, thankfully. One instance that comes to mind is when a county official erroneously reported that a minor had died of COVID in Missoula County and I fired that information off very quickly. Being the first death of a minor in the county it caught a lot of attention and people quickly started retweeting, quotetweeting and liking it. After a while, the information was retracted as an error and I had a tweet with wrong information. Rather than delete my tweet, I decided to keep it up and reply with a correction and quotetweet it with a correction and spent a lot of time replying to people that it was reported incorrectly. I opted to keep the tweet up because I didn’t want to confuse people who saw my post but then couldn’t find it later. I felt that having a correction attached to it in many different places was more transparent. I still am not sure the best way to handle instances like that however.

Q: Do you try to keep your posts strictly around news, or do you venture into other topics, and different aspects of news at times?

A: I know that in general people are coming to me for information so I try to stick to that lane—especially information related to education. With that in mind, I don’t spend a lot of time sharing national news headlines, because that’s not what people want from me. I try to treat my Twitter more as an education news aggregate for my followers when I’m not sharing something directly related to my work.

Q: Do you have different social media strategies when covering college education vs. high school education?

A: I love using Twitter to connect to new sources and it’s really helped me in that capacity. I’ve been able to connect with professors and parents of K-12 students on Twitter, primarily. I don’t feel like my profile has as strong of a reach into college or high school students, which is part of the reason why I’m thinking about reinventing my professional Instagram, and maybe dip my toe into *gulps* TikTok (this makes me sound like a very old woman, but I swear to god I’m 25-years-old, I just don’t need another time-sucking app in my rotation). I’ve seen other education reporters across the country that I really admire try some new things with TikTok and Instagram that I feel could help expand my audience and reach.

My beat is really challenging in general, my editor dubbed it “diapers to diplomas” which is so true. But I also cover a lot of state education policy news with the legislature, board of regents, board of public education and so on. It’s hard to develop a very specific audience when the beat itself is so wide ranging.

Q: What’s the best part about live covering meetings or other school related events?

A: Oh man, I think I love how fast paced it can be. I’ve sort of developed it into a science and now that I have an iPad it’s become an even slicker system. I make an effort to record everything into which provides me a live transcript (though it’s not always perfect) to reflect on quickly. I enjoy making fast decisions about what to include, what to skip, and what to quote directly and what to paraphrase. It can be a great exercise in note taking.

Moreover, I really like live tweeting meetings because I feel like it actually helps people get involved in the public process. I’ve received a lot of really encouraging messages from followers who appreciate the threads when they aren’t able to make it to meetings because their child is sick, or they have another commitment preventing them from being there. The thing with journalism is a lot of people think we have special access, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We have the same legal right to information as other people in the public, the reason why it seems otherwise is because we get paid to make information requests and attend meetings other people can’t. Making that more accessible through live tweeting meetings is a small step I can make to help connect people to their local governing bodies.

Q: Have you tried different methods throughout the years to try and grow your social media?

A: I honestly have never made a concerted effort to grow my social media audience. Obviously, I would love to connect my work with more people, but I don’t want it to come off as forced. One thing I’m trying to quietly make *happen* is #mtedu. I’m trying to make that hashtag a place where people can pose questions related to education in Montana as well as a place for people to find education news in Montana, sort of like #mtscores.

Q: How do you keep up with current trends, and implement them?

A: I don’t actively try to keep up with current trends, but I do follow a TON of education reporters that cover local communities across the country as well as national education reporters from a variety of outlets. That’s helped me cook up ideas on how to localize different national stories and new perspectives into what I can cover in my own community.

Q: How do you handle negative comments or criticism from people online?

A: Criticism is a bit easier for me to handle because I want my work to be accurate and honest, so I’m always open to hearing people out if they feel like what I’ve written needs some work. I’ve had to reframe my mindset of criticism of my work from a personal attack to something I can use to become a better reporter and community member.

In general, I do not handle outright negative or rude comments very well. From the moment I started working in journalism after graduating I’ve been subject to inappropriate requests from sources, threatening letters, emails and direct messages, and rude comments about my appearance. When I first started at the Missoulian an article was published about myself and another young female reporter joining the newsroom and the comments under the article were pretty heinous. Our social media editors do a good job of policing hateful comments, but you still sometimes see them before they’re deleted and it sucks. There are certainly some people who actively try to intimidate me online and I report it to my editors as I feel necessary.

I do not respond to people who are clearly trying to be rude or intimidate me. If people are trying to offer honest criticism I’ll hear them out, if it’s clear they’re trying to get under my skin I’ve learned it’s just easier (and safer) to take note of it, but do not engage.

Q: Do you enjoy the use of social media in your job more than you thought you would?

A: For as many times as it’s added to my anxiety and kept me up at night, I do really appreciate it as a tool. I love how much easier it is to connect with people and learn new things.

Caven Wade is a junior at the University of Montana from Helena, Montana. He is currently on pace to receive his BA in journalism. Caven currently writes as a news reporter for the Kaimin, the student newspaper at the university. He has a focus set on sports and breaking news reporting in the future. Wade is a student in the UM School of Journalism’s Social Media and Engagement class, which conducted Q&As this semester with journalists as part of a research project on best practices for journalists on social media. See more of the Q&As here.

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