By Elinor Smith
Joshua Burnham has been working at Montana Public Radio for seven years. He’s the digital editor, and throughout his career, he’s noted many changes in social media and its environment. He’s adapted MTPR’s social media plan throughout his career to make up for the changes. Burnham has won the “Best Digital Presence” twice by the Associated Press Television and Radio Association in 2018 and 2019 for Western states in the Radio II category. Burnham was also awarded Radio Website of the Year from the Montana Broadcasters Association in 2017, 2018 and 2020. Journalism student and the producer of the student newspaper’s weekly podcast “The Kaimin Cast” Elinor Smith talked with Burnham about his work and below is a transcript of their conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Over the course of your career, you’ve been with MTPR for quite a bit. How have you seen platforms like Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram kind of evolve since the time you started?
A: So, Facebook has changed probably more than anything. There’s been an exodus of younger people from it since I started. And it’s just a very old platform. And the way they’re doing it now is they want to do everything they can to keep you on Facebook. So it used to be you could get link clicks back to your stories, or to your podcasts, or whatever. And it’s just not a good use for that anymore. And so you have to start thinking about doing stuff natively on Facebook. And that means like, when we have briefs or something like that, I’ll just post them directly to Facebook rather than linking out. So, things like that. Facebook advertising could still be good. I don’t know that it’s worth boosting individual posts. But if you’re advertising for your organization or a podcast in general, Facebook is pretty good for that. Twitter. I don’t know Twitter’s kind of Twitter. I haven’t noticed any big differences since I have been there. I think it’s grown. But it’s still a very niche audience. I always tell the reporters like Twitter is the least important thing. It’s a lot of reporters talking to reporters. It’s very helpful for sourcing things like: ‘I’m doing a story on heat exhaustion. Do you know anybody who can talk to me about things like that?’ So it is good for that. But, I think maybe 3% of the country is on it or something. It’s really small. Instagram is going all toward video, TikTok influence has hit Instagram, and they’re promoting reels. If you want to get reach on Instagram right now, reels are the place. Video stories are still doing well. We do carousel sometimes … Those are still helpful. But yeah, video, you got to get into video. I would say one of the most surprising things. Since I’ve started there is that we know from market research that video is one of the top ways people find podcasts. So, a lot of people actually think a podcast means a video, something on YouTube. And that was a surprise when those numbers came out. And so it means pushing more stuff on to YouTube at this point for us. And that might be because those are just like audiograms. Right? It’s just audio where the waveform and we haven’t had a ton of luck with those. But, NPR has started to do those for some of their podcasts. We’re giving it a try. This is a new thing in the last month, maybe. So, we’ll see how that works out.
Q: How do you balance summarizing large amounts of information or kind of like fully reported stories that somebody’s produced— How do you balance getting all that information in there and maintaining the accuracy, but also making it interesting or palatable to people that are like looking for it? Because oftentimes, when I’ve been like trying to put a Kaimin Cast tease together or make people interested in a fully reported story, I find that I either have to lose some of that information to make it interesting or funny, or I put all that information in but it’s like dry.
A: I think one of the best skills you can have as a journalist today, especially if you’re going into social media, is the ability to write concisely. And that may be in writing a headline, that’s your little teaser, your blurb, that’s your promo that you put on social media. You know, to be concise is always good advice for a writer. But it really is one of the most important things, I think, if you’re doing this, because you have to find ways, like you said, to get the important things in there, and you always are going to have to cut out things. And I think you come down to two different parts of it. So maybe you’ve done a story on unemployment. And it’s an important story that you think people need to hear, but it’s going to be kind of dry, right? But what affects those people? What part of that story, when I look at it on my screen, reflects back to me? It’s like, why do I care about this? I care because here’s a really juicy stat. It’s something specific, it’s something you can grab onto. Or do I care because how do I say this diplomatically? Social media is about building our identity. And so when we share something on social media, it’s as much about, hey, friends, look at this as it is, look at me. This is what I care about. These are my values. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. That’s one of the motivations for sharing. So if you can touch on that… know who your audience is, and what makes them want to share, what are the stories they tell themselves?… The other thing we can do in our organization is from the public radio account, I can tweet out something that’s kind of dry, maybe, and gives the facts, and then one of our reporters can tweet it out with a little more context. And then someone else can jump in and leave a comment. And so they’re, they’re kind of ways around that. But it is one of the most difficult things.
Q: Have you found that any one of those, like, has worked better than another? Or is it just what the like post itself is suited for?
A: I think it’s exactly what the post is suited for…You know, if you’re writing about COVID, it’s going to be a different tone. So I guess I would say, yeah, it absolutely needs to be tailored to your story and your organization’s mission.
Q: How do you follow journalism ethics of like, minimize harm, or any of these other things, when online attention kind of inherently comes with a gaggle of, for lack of a better word, trolls to comment negatively on people’s stuff? How do you balance that problem?
A: We don’t post a mug shot unless there’s been an arrest and a charge. We won’t post children’s names or comments or anything unless we have their parents sign off on it. So we do things like that. If we have sexual assault victims or something, and they don’t want to give their last name, and they don’t want their photo to appear, we can work with that. Again, this is one of these case-by-case things where you have to exercise journalistic judgment, right? There are all kinds of cases you could imagine. And I think you just have to be sensitive like these are human beings. We’re not just putting out a product in this new story. This exists for a reason. We want to inform and add depth to the discourse, we’re not here to put people in the spotlight that they don’t want… And I think you just, again, take those case by case and remember, you’re dealing with human beings, and the goal is not to get the most clicks on this, at least from our organization. Our goal is to inform and entertain and inspire. So, I just think you got to keep all that in mind.
Q: Do you change your methods based on how many clicks or views or whatever you think a story is going to get? Or do you kind of treat all the newsroom stories with the same energy?
A: Don’t treat them all with the same energy. Like some things that come in are briefs. And it’s like, just trying to think of a recent example… avian flu was discovered in hidden ducks in Stillwater County. I’m probably not even going to publish that one on most days, unless I have a student to do it. I don’t know that that intersects with anything that our audience needs to know about so badly, you know?… But if it’s like one of our students broke a story on facial recognition in schools. There were no policies, it was happening without any higher-ups beyond the school superintendent. So we broke that story. We made a big deal about that. I always try to write headlines, like I said, concise. And you also have to assume that most people are only going to read the headline and maybe the blurb. So you do try to get important information in there. But I want people to read that story. So I am going to make it a little sexier. Right… Anytime we do a story, we’re on the lookout for ‘this paragraph is going to piss somebody off,’ right? Or are people going to have a response to this? Is this the truth? Is it fair? Is it important to have in the story? And when somebody asks these questions, do we have a good response that justifies having this piece in here?
Q: I’m kind of wondering about the clickbaity nature of writing headlines and captions to make people interested enough to go for it. How do you do that while keeping things accurate to the story? Do you find there’s a way to measure differences in headlines and titles to see which posts are getting more engagement?
A: You can do AB testing. So you basically send out the same thing with different headlines and then compare him. And that’s possible on a lot of platforms. We don’t have that built into our website, but you can do that on most social media… It’s not click bait if the headline delivers on the promise. So if I say it’s the hottest summer in 100 years, and then the story is about that, maybe that’s clickbait, but I’m going to deliver on that promise. And so that’s what I always think about does the story deliver on the promise of the headline, and if it doesn’t, you got to find something else. So yeah, the other thing you can do, and this is like an old social media thing, is use the curiosity gap. Right? And it’s not that ‘you won’t believe what…’ but sometimes you can tease something and not give the answer. And that makes people want to click. And now you have to be very careful because you can abuse that and misrepresent things. Also just sounds really spammy if you do it wrong.
Q: I did want to know: You’ve been awarded twice for, Best Audio website and what I was wondering is, what do you think sets you aside from other people doing the same thing?
A: First, I think we have a great team. And not too. And we all believe in public radio, right? We believe in this mission of listener-funded nonprofit, public service radio, and not to sound too cheesy, but it’s kind of a calling right to do journalism. You don’t do it to get rich. Nobody likes you. Everybody hates you. You’re not making money. But you do it because it feels like it’s an important thing to do. And I can say, honestly, about every person I work with in the newsroom. We all feel that way. So, there’s that. I think the thing is our model, our nonprofit model. Not having a paywall, I think, is a big thing. It makes it easier to access, and you’re not beholden to advertisers. If you have subscribers and sponsors, I think that makes a big difference to people. I also think we try really hard to keep an even keel. We’ve been talking about sensational stuff and all this. But one of the things we consistently hear from our listeners and readers is they appreciate that it’s not hyped up so much as the rest of the news. Let’s not try to make everything like a breaking story or a 24-hour news cycle or whatever. We know what we do well, and we invest in that.
Q: Social media is changing so quickly. I’m sure there’s an expert out there somewhere. But obviously, no person can know everything about all of social media because it’s such a broad topic. As like you’ve moved forward in your career from seven years ago, how has like the hierarchy of platforms that you prioritize changed?
A: When I started, there was no web person and no person that did social media. It was just kind of a job that somebody did, right? And unsurprisingly, as a public radio station, our audience was very old. Like 55 plus was the biggest segment of our audience on our website and on our streams. And that was like 2014-2015. Facebook was still a very good way to get people to click on things and comment. But it’s absolutely taken a dive. Email newsletter, that’s your best friend. It’s a better friend than Facebook, or Instagram or whatever else. Your email newsletter is probably your most important platform. So we focused on that. I think the kinds of things we do on Facebook are different, and certainly, the frequency and my expectations of Facebook are very low. Twitter is good for certain things, politics, fires, and things that are happening right now. Don’t forget your podcast is a platform too. You can put promos and things like that on your podcast. The best way to spread info these days is by word of mouth. People listen to podcasts based on what their friends tell them. The other thing that’s changed is— you talked about the algorithm, everybody knows the algorithm, every organization, every company, everybody, and they all try to leverage it. And you can tell as a user when it’s genuine or not. So people want to connect with real human beings, right? So if you can, in a brand account, bring some humanity to it, then you’re going to have more trust from your users.
Q: Social media is coming back to its roots?
A: I hope so. Because it’s so terrible.
Q: Is there something I didn’t bring up or something that’s really important to you that you think I should know?
A: I would say two things. Don’t stay logged on to your organization’s account. So if you have your phone, and you’re going to post an Instagram, as soon as you’re done, switch back to your account, right? And get in the habit of doing that every time. I posted a public radio thing on my own account, and so it was okay. But it just made me think like, oh, crap, that would be too easy. I am super paranoid about that. What else? I think you just have to be fluent in many different mediums. So, like, today, I worked on video and After Effects. And I cut some audio for a newscast. And I edited something in AP style and posted it to a page, right? I wrote some promos for social media and for email news.
You have to wear a lot of hats, and you don’t have to be an expert on all that. You have to be able to do it. I think really know your organization’s mission, like get to know the mission statement so that you can repeat it. Because when you’re trying to decide on a lot of things you’re asking about, like what’s too sensational, or what’s more important to give them the details or something that’ll get them to click, think about your mission statement. What else, if you’re going to work in this [industry], you have to know how to turn off at the end of the day. I have a routine like close my computer, get away from it, go for a walk. In journalism, in general, that’s true. And in social media, it’s true. Because sometimes you can be working at a whole day and then go home and you pick up your phone, and you scroll through Tik Tok, right? And it turns into this never-ending thing. And it really has real consequences. So I think it’s an important thing for everybody to know; make a plan for your mental health, right? Make a plan to separate work from home.
Elinor Smith is a junior at the University of Montana studying journalism. She is focused on podcasting and radio production and will graduate in 2024. Smith 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.