By Tyler Johnson

Nate Schoenfelder is the director of audience engagement at the Montana Free Press. Schoenfelder specializes in marketing and communications. Schoenfelder is from Idaho and, prior to serving as the director of audience engagement at the Montana Free Press, was on the leadership team of a software company called Pingman Tools as their marketing communications manager.

Montana Free Press is present on various social media platforms which include Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Their largest following is on Twitter where they have about 9,000 followers. They remain active on all of their social media platforms. UM student Tyler Johnson interviewed Schoenfelder via email to get a deeper look into the Montana Free Press social media practices. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Q: Are there any guidelines that you follow when generating a social media post and if so, what are they?
A: So, our post guidelines are not formalized, but our biggest north star is to always strive to provide value to a reader. While we often have audience and fundraising needs that we support through social media posting, we view all our social posts through the lens of our role as a news organization and our responsibility to provide information to the public and to offer a venue (flawed as it may be) for public discourse. Our posting is always done with an explicit goal in mind, be it to drive traffic to a story, generate newsletter signups, or solicit audience feedback.

Q: How many people do you have working on your social media team and what are some of the responsibilities?

We have a team of three who oversee our social accounts. As the Director of Audience Engagement, it is my responsibility to set higher-level goals and guide our social media strategy to achieve our objectives. At this point, I will rarely draft social posts. However, outside of our social posts promoting new reporting, I review and approve the content of our posts.

We have a marketing contractor who provides social media support, which includes drafting social posts and managing the day-to-day maintenance of the accounts.

Our Production Editor is responsible for drafting and scheduling all of our social posts for story promotion. Our publishing tools allow us to schedule posting directly from our content management system, so social post drafting is included in the story publication workflow.

Q: When creating posts how do you avoid displaying bias to one side or the other on a controversial topic?
A: Much like with our reporting, we are critical of our wording to prevent the appearance of bias in our social posts. In cases where a story is likely to be highly controversial, we will work with the reporter and our lead editor to confirm that what we are publishing on social media strictly adheres to our editorial standards and captures the nuance of the reporting. 

Q: What have you found works best to reach your audience and do you have different strategies depending on the social media platform?
A: We have recognized that different social media platforms are more popular with different audiences, and we tailor content to match each audience’s preferences. Our Facebook audience tends to skew older and are still likely to click through to a story when it’s presented in their feeds, so we may craft longer posts to give more story context. For Instagram, the audience is less likely to click through (both because of platform limitations and because of typical IG user behavior), so we try to build in more stand-alone content that provides value while building consumption habits. Twitter tends to be our most plugged-in audience, so we often try to tailor content for them that is more supplemental (such as reporter’s notebook threads that give more context to the reporting we publish).

Q: Are there any patterns that you have noticed with people interacting with your content at Montana Free Press?

A: Different story subjects do better on different platforms. For example, our statehouse and legislative policy reporting sees more engagement on Twitter, while stories that are more “human interest” do better on Instagram. This helps us prioritize efforts on the right content for the right audience.

Q: Does working in journalism make you view or use your personal social media differently?

A: Absolutely! While I may not be a front-facing member of Montana Free Press, I am acutely aware of how my statements and actions could be used to undermine the reputation of our newsroom. I tend to be more on the cautious side than most, but for the most part, I avoid showing any preference for any one political affiliation and keep my candidate opinions to myself. I also keep any account where I might be inclined to share those opinions private.

Q: How much time and effort do you usually put into your social media posts, and how do you try to present Montana Free Press online?

A: This can vary depending on the type and intended purpose of the post. For straightforward story posts, these can take just a minute or two if the reporting is straightforward and we have a great photo and strong lead copy or a juicy pull quote that lends itself to social media. For posts that serve as stand-alone content or have a very intentional objective and call to action, we might spend 15-20 minutes discussing language, scheduling, and other elements of strategy. If we are generating custom assets for a post, this can vary based on complexity.

As for how we present Montana Free Press online, we want to be recognized as a respected source of independent, nonpartisan news and information. As I mentioned before, different audiences have different expectations for what that is, and we adjust slightly to speak to that audience and their expectations. For example, on Instagram, we are more comfortable posting content using informal language and shorthand the typical IG user will understand. On Twitter, we are more strict about language use to help build the sort of authoritative voice we want our plugged-in audience to associate with being a publication of record.

Tyler Johnson is a student in the UM School of Journalism’s Social Media and Audience class, which conducted Q&As this semester as part of a research project on best practices of social media. See more of the Q&As here.

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